On the intersection of science and history & how Katatra Vasquez inspires us all
Katatra Vasquez with a student, enjoying Josie's Hope | Katatra Vasquez
Environmental scientist Katatra Vasquez wears many hats. If scientist wasn’t enough, she’s also an author, an historic preservation specialist, a tour guide, an historian—and now she’s founded her own business, the Atomic Hope Heritage Preservation and Tourism Company. She’s unstoppable! With a passion for sharing the stories of those who came before us—especially the contributions of the historically unknown—she shares these narratives to connect and inspire all of us, but especially children. At the intersection of both science and history, Vasquez often teaches about Oak Ridge, Tennessee, its rich community, and its involvement in the World War II Manhattan Project.
A Q&A with Katatra Vasquez
Read on to learn more about Vasquez, and her work:
Tell us about yourself! How long have you lived in Oak Ridge?
I was born in Dayton, Ohio, but have deep southern roots. I can trace my family back to the 1700s in the southern colony of Virginia. I attended Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama. Immediately after graduation, I moved to Tennessee. I have been in the south for over half of my life. I guess you can say this northerner by birth is now a southerner. I have lived in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, for the past four years and I love it!
What is your favorite spot in Oak Ridge?
The City of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, has so much to offer so it is hard to pick just one spot. I always enjoyed the beautiful East Tennessee’s scenic tapestry. No matter the season, the great outdoors is always beautiful here. I really enjoy where history and nature meet, so my favorite spots are where I can view Walden Ridge. The Walden Ridge is where Harriet Tubman came through this area rescuing enslaved people on their journey to freedom. I am blessed that I can sit on my front porch and view this majestic Ridge. Viewing Walden Ridge reminds me of how far we have come as people and gives me such pride.
What do you love about being an author?
I have worked as an environmental scientist for over 20 years. I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would become a published author. There is a quote by world-renowned author Toni Morrison that says, “If there is a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I saw a need to share with children (or anyone that does not feel they see themselves positively represented in mainstream American History) information about some ordinary but extraordinary people whose stories are rarely told to inspire, educate, and foster a sense of belonging. Although I did not see it coming, I absolutely love the creativity and the opportunities to spread joyful hope being an author affords me.
Through your tours, we see that Oak Ridge has rich history. Can you share one of your favorite stories from Oak Ridge’s history?
First let me say it is awesome that people are seeing through my tours Oak Ridge, Tennessee, has such a great rich history. Oak Ridge was a secret city for so long, it is way overdue for the world to see just what makes Oak Ridge so unique. Many believe that the Oak Ridge story begins with the Top-Secret World War II Manhattan Project. There is no denying that our contribution to this significant piece of history is very important but there were people who left a legacy in this area way before that are equally vital to history.
My favorite Oak Ridge history so far is that of Josie and her family who lived in Oak Ridge when the government began to take it over for the Manhattan Project. It is a great story where folklore and fact meet. Of course, for the shameless plug, you can read more about Josie in my short graphic novel, Josie’s Hope: A Secret City Revealed which is available now on Amazon, and download the Josie’s Hope Tour on the Built Story App. A close second is the story of Mrs. Kattie Strickland who despite segregated practices used her ingenious hands and made some fantastically delicious biscuits on a biscuit pan made from one of the world’s largest buildings at the time to overcome injustice. There are many more stories that I look forward to discovering but for now these are my favorite stories from Oak Ridge, Tennessee’s, history.
Are there any stories in Oak Ridge’s past that we should learn from? So that we don’t repeat history?
Absolutely. There are many. James Baldwin sums it up in this quote, “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it…History is Literally Present in All We Do.” Understanding this, we must all be aware and be open to seeing history from varying perspectives knowing that hope connects us all.
What makes Oak Ridge feel like home to you?
I started the journey of becoming an author because there was a level of frustration that many of the stories about marginalized people in Oak Ridge were limiting or did not exist at all. I initially felt how could marginalized people or children feel as if they belonged in this city if many of the images or stories about people that looked like them were seemingly always put in a perpetual box of the downtrodden. We have come a long way over the years, in the resolution of my perceived representation issues. There is still work to be done, however; by continuing to tell our stories I can see human connections being made beyond race and the willingness for people to see history from a different perspective. The icing on the cake for me is seeing the faces of local children who see themselves in a different light and give me cheerful grins of thanks and appreciation. This along with stepping out on my front porch to see where my ancestors journeyed in hopeful freedom makes Oak Ridge feel like home to me every day.
Looking for great things to do in Oak Ridge TN?
These Oak Ridge tours from Vasquez are perfect for an afternoon-
Check out Vasquez' two self-guided tours Josie’s Hope: A Secret City Revealed and Freedom Day Journey of Hope Tour: Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
And be sure to read her books Josie’s Hope: A Secret City Revealed, its companion coloring, story and activity book for children and Atomic Hope Cultural Travel Activity Guide Oak Ridge, TN✨