*On July 17, 1944 at the Port Chicago naval magazine two accidental blasts of munitions, turned deadly and resulted in the death of over 300 sailors and civilians.
202 of the sailors were black. It was the biggest homeland disaster of World War II. Due to a racist and segregated military at the time, the job of loading deadly ammunition was relegated to the Negro enlistees.
Port Chicago Naval Magazine was constructed in 1941 as an ideal site because it was a former shipyard that serviced three railways on the Sacramento River at the San Francisco Bay. Ships could load cargo there that was bound for the Pacific.
After the deadly blast, 258 survivors refused to return to work with unsafe and poorly trained conditions. Under pressure 208 complied, but 50 refused and were charged with mutiny, a crime punishable by death or imprisonment. The 50 maintained that they had done no wrong, but were found guilty by what was deemed a racist military court. All who did not die on July 17, 1944 were disgraced, dishonored and hardly lauded as heroes. Due to public pressure desegregation of the navy is said to have begun in 1946.
In 1994 The Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial was constructed by the National Park Service in honor of the deceased, but it was a far cry from justice for those who lived to tell of the blast, and the aftermath. Sandra Evers-Manly, President and Founder of the Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center learned of the Port Chicago incident from one of her neighbors in the late 1990’s. She was compelled to bring justice to those who remained.
In 1998, the Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center formed the Port Chicago Survivors Support Committee to bring justice to the 50 men who were charged with mutiny. The committee’s first order of business was to conduct a nationwide search for survivors. Next was the goal of having the charge of mutiny expunged from the record for the men who were charged. A national letter writing campaign was underway. Port Chicago survivor Freddie Meeks viewed it as a way to bring more national attention to the story of the 50 charged with mutiny. President Bill Clinton eventually issued a pardon to Meeks, but other survivors refused the pardon because they maintained their innocence. In 1998 for the 55th anniversary of the Port Chicago incident, the Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center hosted the largest ever event for survivors and honored them during Black History Month in Los Angeles, followed by another observation in Sacramento hosted by 48th District Assemblyman Roderick Wright.
In 1999 the commemoration continued in the San Francisco Bay Area at the Golden Gate Memorial Cemetery where most of the sailors had been buried. Many were buried in graves marked “Unknown” because they were burned beyond recognition. Sandra Evers-Manley and her team at BHER have continued to see that the men of Port Chicago 1944 are regarded as Men of Valor, and that their actions brought forth a redress of justice for all men and women of color in our armed forces. The event has inspired movies and books such as The Port Chicago Mutiny, by Robert Allen, with assistance from Port Chicago survivor Joseph Smalls (who is now deceased).
While hundreds visit Port Chicago each year to pay homage to the sailors and workers who died there, an ongoing campaign still simmers to clear the name of those who were deemed to be mutineers. In 2009 President Barack Obama signed the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial Expansion Act, a bill that was introduced by Senator Barbara Boxer to expand the site by 5 acres, and it’s capacity to host more visitors and educational tours.
Port Chicago is one of America’s darkest and long forgotten secrets. The black sailors who served their country under horrific conditions deserve recognition for their journey in the segregated Navy. Since 1999 the Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center (BHERC), under the leadership of Sandra Evers-Manly who formed a support group for the African American men who served in Port Chicago and bring them together to commemorate the tragic day of July 17, 1944. While most of the survivors have passed on, some of them still live and the BHERC commemorates the 70th anniversary of the Port Chicago Blast – the largest military disaster on American soil.
For detailed information contact BHERC at 310.284.3170 or visit online at www.bherc.org.
This week EURweb.com will also rebroadcast a special edition of “Port Chicago 1944: Singed and Unsung Heroes by the Sea.” Don’t miss this compelling story in it’s entirety. Listen below: