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Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center Announces 80th Anniversary Commemoration of Port Chicago Disaster, Amplifies Call for Justice

Port Chicago Disaster

Nationwide — On Wednesday, July 17th, the Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center (BHERC) will commemorate the 80th Anniversary of the tragic blast in Port Chicago, California in 1944. The disaster killed 320 men, 202 of which were Black. BHERC will honor the spirit and memory of these men by placing flags on gravesites at 10am at the US Military Cemetery in San Bruno California, followed by a memorial service at 12 noon. BHERC members will also join in other planned commemoration events. BHERC continues to look for Port Chicago survivors and their families. They are encouraged to contact Sandra@BHERC.org.

For the 25th year, the BHERC strongly calls on the US Navy, Department of Defense, and the U.S government at large to exonerate and expunge the records of the 50 men unjustly convicted of mutiny. Time may have passed but the “The injustice and scars remain,” notes BHERC President and Pittsburg, CA native Sandra Evers-Manly. “I learned of the blast from my neighbor years ago and its effects have stayed with me since then. I cannot forget.”

About the Port Chicago Tragedy: Civil Rights Spark, Largest and Deadliest WWII Homefront Disaster

During WWII, Port Chicago Naval Magazine was a prominent ammunition loading dock that contributed greatly to sea warfare in the early 40’s. It was made up, predominately, of young, hopeful Black men with the dream of serving this country as sailors. Instead, they were met with intense hatred, manipulation, and mistreatment. With dreams deferred and the prevailing discriminatory attitudes of the Navy during that time, the Black seamen were assigned to do either menial labor or dangerous work such as loading ammunition with no safety protocols or training.

On July 17, 1944, at 10:18pm, men were loading the usual 2,000-pound munitions until two explosions ensued, nearly leveling the entire Port Chicago area. There were no survivors on the dock. Several men were injured on the base grounds, but nothing would compare to the irreparable mental, emotional, and financial injury that these men would suffer afterward. When it was found that the majority of the men killed in the blast were black, the initial congressional proposal offering $5000 dropped to $3000, however, some claimed to have received $2500 or less.

After spending several weeks picking up the remains of their fellow seamen and cleaning the port, the surviving Black sailors, including those with injuries, were ordered to return to work on August 9th, 2024. A number of seamen applied for a leave of absence but only the white men were granted it. The Black men were ordered to load more ammunition at a nearby base (Mare Island) under the same unsafe working conditions that existed previously. Fearful that another blast might happen, 258 of the Black seamen wanted safer conditions in addition to an end to the racist, hostile work conditions. They fought for training, an explanation of the disaster, and an end to the unfair racial treatment. But instead, they were met with more administrative threats of imprisonment and death. As a result, the men refused to go back to work out of fear. They were consequently imprisoned on a barge. Several days later, after being a final threat of the death penalty, 208 of the Black seamen agreed to return to work. The remaining 50 were charged with mutiny, an act punishable by death.

NAACP counsel and legal representative for the men, Thurgood Marshall, stated that the “Court-martial proceedings were one of the worst frame-ups we have come across.” A viable explanation for the cause of the explosion was never determined. Even posthumously, the Black seamen were not treated with the dignity and respect equal to their white counterparts. The Black sailors who died were buried in a segregated section of the military cemetery. The Black men of Port Chicago fought a war on two fronts – WWII and the war of Racism at home. The fortitude and valor that they embodied is truly inspiring and more than worthy of commemoration.

Port Chicago is one of America’s darkest and unknown secrets. Yet it is one of the most significant events in Black History and a turning point for civil rights. Fifteen percent of all Black soldiers who died in WWII died in this tragedy. The Black sailors who served their country under horrific conditions deserve recognition for their journey in the segregated Navy. In 1998, the Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center (BHERC), under the leadership of its President, Sandra Evers-Manly, started a Survivor’s Support Group for the Black men who served in Port Chicago, recognizing their service, calling for justice and bringing together the known survivors to commemorate the date. While all of the survivors known by the BHERC, have now passed on, the BHERC humbly and honorably commemorate this 80th anniversary of the events at Port Chicago – the largest military disaster on American soil. This tragic day for it is the only way to ensure that we are fiercely educated on the events of our history, assuring that what took place will never happen again.

In a statement released by BHERC, it says, “We ask individuals, our communities, and most importantly the nation to remember and commemorate July 17, 1944. Let the impact of the lives lost and the survivors who helped to win World War II that led to a resounding change in the military resonate with us all… lest we forget.”

For more information, contact BHERC at 310-384-3170 or visit the official website at BHERC.org