She's history: 101-year-old Clara Hughes on breaking ground as a Black woman in Oak Ridge – Knoxville News Sentinel

She’s Black history and women’s history all by herself, and when you sit down with “Mother Clara” you sort of feel like you’ve known her forever. She serves warm hugs and a smile and can tell you her life story like anyone half her age.
101-year-old Clara Curd Hall Hughes broke barriers as a Black woman, becoming the first African American woman to serve on the union board for workers at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge. 
From her tough, humble childhood in rural East Tennessee’s working every aspect of her extended family’s farm, she worked her way up through manual labor jobs to a place in local history.  
As she sits on the sofa in Knoxville, blue sweater and silver jewelry adorning a gorgeous brown complexion resembling that of a woman 30 years younger, she talks about when she was 17 in Oliver Springs, doing what she could to make a living for herself, mainly through domestic work, cooking and cleaning in the homes and businesses of white people.
She eventually fell in love and married a coal miner, Freeman Alfred Hall, in 1937. When America joined World War II and the work ramped up near her hometown, she stepped up to play a role.  
And her dedication led to her breaking barriers in her work and contributing to the Civil Rights Movement in her own ways. 
The Manhattan Project, code name for the American-led effort to develop the atomic bomb during World War II, changed Hughes’ life. 
In 1941, the United States government purchased nearly 60,000 acres of farmland in the Clinch River Valley for the development of a planned city. In 1942, Oak Ridge was established as a production site for the project. Engineers were tasked with quickly building a town to accommodate 30,000 workers, and building the enormously complex plants. So many people living nearby pitched in, including Hughes.  
“It was the Secret City because we didn’t know anything. We better not know anything, “ Hughes chuckled.
Black people were initially prohibited from living in Oak Ridge, with most residing in surrounding Oliver Springs, Clinton and Knoxville. Hughes said it was a scary time.
“There were rumors but we didn’t really know what was going on. We heard that the government was gonna come in and build facilities while the war was going on. They rushed in here and started working. They was just taking people’s houses, giving them next to nothing for their homes,” she said.
“We was scared they was gonna come into Oliver Springs and take ours, too. We had lots of our white friends who got pushed out of Oak Ridge. They just started grazing this place, we were scared to death,” she said.
In 1951, Hughes got a job as a janitor working at an electromagnetic plant also known as Y-12, operated for the Atomic Energy Commission by Union Carbide Corporation. 
It was quite the step up from her years of working for 50 cents a week. Thousands of Black workers flocked to the project, hoping to escape oppressive Jim Crow laws and the drought that devastated farming communities. Despite segregation, unequal pay and housing woes, the 58 cents an hour offered to Black labor workers was higher than they could make anywhere else.
After success with her hands-on work, Hughes was promoted to maintenance supervisor, a position she held for more than 30 years. Her tireless work earned her a spot as a Y-12 union workers’ board member in 1962. She became the first African American woman to serve on the board. 
“I was so proud of myself for getting to a point where I could become a supervisor. There weren’t a lot of us Black people who got those kind of jobs. I was the first in my department,” she said.
That same year, Hughes and her husband adopted a little girl, the realization of a dream come true she held onto for years.
“You see, I wasn’t able to have no children, so when we adopted little Rosa that was the best day of my life,” she said.
Hughes retired from Y-12 in 1982 after more than 30 years of dedicated service. She married Franklin Ira Hughes after the death of her first husband.
“We didn’t have Black history years ago. That just came up here in the last 25-30 years, I guess,” pondered Hughes. 
Many of the years she spent in Oliver Springs and Oak Ridge were at the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. While racial tensions weren’t as high in her tiny town, she knew the reality for Black people had always been one of struggle. 
“We just tried to get along with everybody and love each other during those times. That’s all we could do,” she said. 
She recalls the day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in 1968.
“I used to enjoy hearing that wonderful man speak and when he got killed it hurt my heart so much. I was sad for a long long time,” she said as her voice quivered.
“If he was still here things would be a lot different than they are now. He talked about his children being able to go to school with little white boys, and that has happened but things are still not what they could be. We’ve come a long way but we still got a long ways to go,” she said. 
Despite equality that still hasn’t been achieved, Hughes is happy to have witnessed the first Black president.
Beaming, she got up to show a letter from Barack and Michelle Obama, a 90th birthday gift she received from The White House.
“When I got that, I was so surprised because it just felt so wonderful to see him become our president. He did a beautiful job and I prayed for him all the time.”
She’s no stranger to her community. She’s been recognized by the Tennessee General Assembly, lauded by mayors and governors, has the key to the city of Oak Ridge, and even has a day in her name declared by Oak Ridge Mayor Warren Gooch.
She’s been a member of Little Leaf Baptist Church for more than 80 years, and to this day she doesn’t miss a Sunday. One of the greatest moments of her life she holds dear is her baptism in a creek called Tupper Town in 1937.
“I looked forward to that day for a long, long time,” she said as she smiled.
After visiting forty-nine states, several countries and traveled aboard thirteen cruises, she feels pretty complete. 
Today, Hughes lives with her family in Knoxville, and while she misses watching TV like she used to, trading in “Days of Our Lives” for gospel music and bird watching, she’s still able to enjoy the little things like canning fresh fruits and vegetables, making jellies and preserves, and playing checkers.
And don’t forget her favorite pound cake. Her recipe has been passed down in the family over the years.
“I love it when Faye (her niece) makes it. She must have made 50 to 100 pound cakes. It’s just so good,” she said with a grin.
She’s outlived most of her friends, including her daughter Rosa, who passed away in 2017. She’s just happy to still be alive, with no hidden beauty secrets and no special diet. The only thing she attributes to more than a century of good living is the Lord.
“I talk to the Lord every day because it’s all from him. He could’ve taken me several years ago, and I just thank the Lord for keeping me here,” she said.