President Obama Signs Bill Establishing Port Chicago, Site of Largest World War II Homefront Disaster, as Full Unit of National Park System

President Obama today signed legislation that will incorporate Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial as a full and permanent unit of our National Park System – enhancing the ability of the site to receive needed federal funding to share the important story of Port Chicago with the public.

Five years ago at its inaugural gala, the Equal Justice Society honored the 60th anniversary of the devastating explosion at Port Chicago Naval Weapons Station that killed over 300 sailors, mostly African Americans assigned to loading munitions ships. When 50 black sailors refused to resume loading until there was an investigation into the explosion, they were charged and convicted of mutiny. The ensuing outcry led in part to the desegregation of the military. In October of this year, legislation introduced and championed by Rep. George Miller and Sen. Barbara Boxer passed the House and Senate creating the Port Chicago Memorial as a new park to be administered by the National Park Service. At our upcoming annual Gala on Dec. 4, 2009, EJS will salute the Friends of Port Chicago Memorial Committee, the National Park Service and many others for their dedication in pursuing recognition of the Port Chicago Memorial as a National Park and as a historic symbol of our struggle for equality and dignity.

“This has been a long time coming. The Friends of Port Chicago are tremendously grateful to Congressman Miller, Senator Boxer and those who have championed this legislation,” said Rev. Diana McDaniel, President of the Friends group. “Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial will now be a permanent memorial and will help ensure that the lessons and history of racial and social injustice at Port Chicago are shared with America so that the story will not be lost.”

The legislation, signed as part of the FY2010 Defense Authorization Act, was introduced under the leadership of Rep. George Miller (D-CA) and will elevate Port Chicago – the Concord, CA area site where the largest U.S. home front disaster during World War II took place- from an affiliated park site to a full unit of the National Park System. This will allow the Park Service to create a national park visitor center and receive increased funding to hire park rangers to share the site’s story with the public.

The Port Chicago explosion at the naval magazine killed 320 men, 202 of whom were African-American. The explosion, work stoppage, and subsequent mutiny trial provide insights into the injustice of racial discrimination, the African-American experience in the U.S. military, and home front life during the Second World War. These events ultimately led to the desegregation of the armed services in the United States.

“Today, the National Park System became one step closer to representing a more complete picture of America’s past,” said Neal Desai, Bay Area program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. “Let us hope that increased awareness of the Port Chicago story and the challenges of race and segregation that we faced during World War II will inform future decisions to better our society.”

The blast, felt up to 500 miles away, occurred as merchant ships were being loaded with 5,000 tons of high explosives. The ammunition-loading workforce at the Port Chicago Naval Ammunition Depot was composed exclusively of African Americans. After the disaster, on August 9, 1944, 258 of the surviving black sailors, who had been sent to Vallejo to load munitions at Mare Island, realized they were on their way to load munitions again and engaged in a work stoppage. They wanted to avoid another catastrophe because of the unsafe working conditions. Fifty of the sailors were charged and convicted of mutiny in the largest mutiny trial in U.S. Naval history. The trial and its aftermath prompted historic steps toward racial integration in the Navy, encouraged by such prominent figures as Thurgood Marshall, who filed an appeal on behalf of the convicted sailors, and Eleanor Roosevelt, who used Port Chicago as a powerful example of the need to desegregate the military.

Because of the exemplary public-private partnership of the Friends of Port Chicago and the National Park Service, the Equal Justice Society will be honoring both groups at their annual gala on December 4, 2009.

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Friends of Port Chicago National Memorial, a 501 c 3 non profit,  has worked for years to he lp make this a permanent memorial to honor those whose lives were lost in the largest U.S. homefront disaster during World War II.  The Friends of Port Chicago are working to preserve this history by working collaboratively with the National Park Service, and the East Bay Regional Park District to create a Visitor & Interpretive Center that would promote a greater public awareness of the importance of the work done by these men to support our winning WWII, the events surrounding the tragedy, and the historical significance of the mutiny trial as a catalyst for the furtherance of the civil rights movement in our country, especially in the desegregation of our military.  The Friends are also working to have the sailors’ mutiny convictions revoked, as well as establishing a youth mentoring program in the future.

Since 1919, the nonpartisan National Parks Conservation Association has been the leading voice of the American people in protecting and enhancing our National Park System. NPCA, its 325,000 members, and many partners work together to protect the park system and preserve our nation’s natural, historical, and cultural heritage for generations to come.

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