The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin. Roaring Brook Press (an imprint of Macmillan Publishers), 2014. 208 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 10-14. ISBN: 9781596437968.
Steve Sheinkin is a master of narrative nonfiction. He tells real stories with a fine novelist’s or a poet’s sense of what to include to make the story matter to the reader. And his stories are so fast-paced they are hard to put down. All of that is true for The Port Chicago 50. In this book Sheinkin tells the story of a group of black Navy men during World War II. The men were stationed at Port Chicago, east of San Francisco. They loaded ammunition onto ships. They had no training in handling ammunition. Only black Navy men loaded ammunition, not white Navy men. An explosion killed roughly 300 men, injured many others, and sunk two ships. The surviving members of the Port Chicago divisions were moved to Mare Island Naval Base, closer to San Francisco than they had been at Port Chicago. When the divisions were ordered to resume loading ammunition onto ships the 50 refused. They were tried for mutiny. A young Thurgood Marshall was outraged by the racism he saw in the mutiny trial. He pressed the Secretary of the Navy to conduct an investigation. Eleanor Roosevelt also let the Secretary of the Navy know that she was concerned about the outcome of the trial.
Sheinkin sets the story of these black enlisted men at Port Chicago within the context of the Civil Rights Movement. Before World War II the US military was segregated. Even the blood supply kept on hand for wounded soldiers was divided into white blood and black blood. At the beginning of the war, the decision was made to continue segregation. Besides that, blacks were only considered capable of jobs in the mess hall or other menial tasks. Loading ammunition was considered a menial task. In 1946, as a direct result of the actions of the Port Chicago 50 and the unfairness of their mutiny trial, the secretary of the Navy ordered the Navy to be desegregated. In 1948 President Truman desegregated all branches of the military.
The Port Chicago 50 are not often mentioned when the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement are listed. This book makes it clear that they should be mentioned and they should be honored.
The book is full of quotes from the Port Chicago 50 themselves and from the trial transcripts. It’s also full of photos. In the back there are source notes, as well as an extensive bibliography.