Honoring Juneteenth and The Port Chicago 50

On July 17, 1944, a catastrophic explosion killed more than three hundred people at Port Chicago Naval Magazine. The majority of the casualties were African American sailors. During World War II, the port served as a naval munitions base critical to the war effort. Due to systemic racism, African American servicemen were disproportionately assigned the dangerous task of loading ammunition. Lacking sufficient training and resources, Black sailors faced significant harm while under the supervision of white officers. When the explosion occurred, Black survivors were made to clean up and immediately reassigned to other duties, while white officers were given leave. In protest, a group of 50 African American sailors rose up to demand better, soon facing a court martial in the largest mass mutiny trial in the history of the nation.

African-American sailors loading ammunition onto a train (courtesy of NPS).

The Port Chicago 50, as the group would come to be known, refused to return to work until the systemic injustices they faced were addressed. Despite their compelling evidence, the group was found guilty and sentenced to eight to fifteen years of hard labor. All of the men were dishonorably discharged. Thurgood Marshall, then a civil rights activist and lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, observed that the Navy was on trial for its “vicious policy” toward African Americans. Marshall mounted an appeal, which, sadly, resulted in the reaffirmation of all 50 convictions.

In 1946, after the war ended, the Navy paroled 47 of the men. Two men served additional months in the prison’s hospital, recovering from injuries, and one man was not released because of reported bad conduct. Most of the men’s dishonorable discharges were converted to honorable discharges after fulfilling their post-war duties. The convictions were not overturned at this time, which meant all 50 men were held to be convicts in the eyes of the law and military.

Thurgood Marshall at Congress (courtesy of NPS).

In 1990, a campaign was launched to exonerate the Port Chicago 50. Many people urged the survivors to petition Congress for a pardon–a plea which most survivors refused. A pardon meant to admit guilt and request forgiveness. These men sought a complete overturn of conviction. Freddie Meeks, one of the few survivors alive during this time, pushed for a pardon and, bolstered by the support of 37 members of Congress, eventually won his individual fight. President Clinton pardoned Freddie Meeks in 1999, a mere three years before Meeks’s death in 2003.

Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial, established in 1994, is dedicated to the lives lost in the explosion. In the spirit of Juneteenth, a time to address systemic racism in the nation, we also honor the lives of those who survived and fought for freedom and equality at great personal cost. While efforts to fully and posthumously exonerate the Port Chicago 50 persist, the convictions have been, to date, upheld.

By: Julie Thompson