Have you heard of Port Chicago? Not many have. I have heard that the history of Port Chicago, could have well been the beginning of the civil right movement, yet it’s not mentioned in most history books. It’s a story that has been held in wrapped for 69 years. A history that began December 8, 1942 when the very first Navy ships were loaded with munitions, in a city that no longer exists, Port Chicago.
Port Chicago was home base for hundreds if not thousands of African American sailors. Who unlike their counter parts, white enlisted sailors, had absolutely no say in their marching orders. Their job was to load munition onto ships, that’s it. There was absolutely no training for this very tedious and dangerous work. Most of the time these untrained African American sailors,were encouraged to load these ships in the quickest manner possible( speed contest ).
On July 17, 1944, around 10:15 pm, as these soldiers were loading these ships,an explosion took place,5000 tons of munitions exploded, destroying two ships, killing 320 men and injuring hundreds.
After the explosion, sailors were sent to Mare Island while the Port Chicago site was cleared of the devastating explosion.
On August 9 the uninjured African American soldiers were ordered back to work. Back to the same conditions that were in place at the time of the explosion. Without any idea as to how the explosion happened and no explanation forth coming, the sailors were weary of loading ammunition at Mare Island. Feeling their working conditions were unsafe, 258 soldiers refused their orders. On August 12, 50 African American Soldiers( Port Chicago 50 ) were still refusing their orders to return to work and were formally charged with mutiny.
On September 14, 1944, their trial began. October of the same year, the honorable Thurgood Marshall requested a formal government investigation. October 24, 1944, all 50 men were found guilty of mutiny and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
January 6, 1946, 47 of the 50 men were released. The remaining 3 were to serve longer sentences.
Several attempts were made to have their sentences overturned. In 1994 the Navy rejected a request to over-turn the court martial decision.
In 1994 the site of the explosion was dedicated as a National Memorial site.
October 28,2009 Port Chicago Magazine National Memorial became the 392nd unit of the National Park Service. It sits on what remains an active military base.
The Port Chicago story is one that is still being written, as the possibility for a reversal in the court decision, remains talked about.
We owe a great deal to those soldiers that were killed and imprisoned. Their work would have gone unnoticed, if not for the explosion.
As with so many segments of history, it takes a nudging to awaken us to what we should have already been aware of. Having heard bits and pieces of the story, I never thought much of it. I thought here’s yet another piece of history where African Americans were treated less than human and why should I put forth the effort to read up on what I was sure to be a distorted reality, in a book written by someone with a blurred vision of what truly took place.
After reading Robert Allen’s book, visiting the site for myself and listening to the stories told by descendants and military personnel who were enlisted in the military at the time,I now know that we all owe it to those who lost their lives, to not only read about it, but care about it.
I encourage you all to visit the memorial site. It is flanked on the very ground where the explosion took place. There you can read all the names of soldiers who were lost during the explosion. You can gaze out at the same water that the ships sailed. You can stand next to the pillars, that rise out of the waters, as a memorial in and of themselves. It is a very serene and some what majestic place. Knowing that you stand on ground that holds so much history.
It is up to each and everyone of us, to not allow this history to continue in obscurity. As a country we have an obligation to tell this story. As African Americans we live in debt to the work they did in a segregated military that to this day, refuses to over turn a ruling that was unjust in principle. We must lend ourselves, our voices and our obligatory duty, to righting this wrong.