Port Chicago 50 Honored at 76th Anniversary

A memorial for those who were killed and injured in a 1944 explosion at then-Port Chicago Naval Magazine, Calif.
FILE -- In this Aug. 13, 2019 file photo, Maj. Gen. Anthony Funkhouser, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Deputy Commanding General for Military and International Operations, tours a memorial for those who were killed and injured in a 1944 explosion at then-Port Chicago Naval Magazine, Calif. ( Ken Wright/U.S. Army)

During many Black Lives Matter protests held in Vallejo in recent weeks, a common chant has been heard -- "Say their names."

Friday morning the same advice was taken when nearly a dozen people read the names of 50 sailors who were found guilty of mutiny 76 years ago during the Port Chicago Explosion.

Approximately 10 people showed up at the end of Ryder Street in South Vallejo to revisit the plaque and proclamation honoring the 76th anniversary of the Port Chicago Explosion and the 50 sailors, known as the Port Chicago 50. During the event, those in attendance took terms reading the names out loud of the 50 sailors.

Sharon McGriff-Payne, Vallejo resident and historian who helped put the memorial together, was on hand again at the 76th anniversary.

"If you're an African American from Vallejo, the Port of Chicago is a part of your family story," McGriff-Payne said while addressing the crowd.

"I'm always moved when I'm here. Just to know that my parents was here at the time. Knowing my father came over here at this time," McGriff-Payne said. "My mother said she would always remember rallies taking place here. Our city not only has so much history, but things happened here that helped change the world. So all that comes to mind."

On July 17, 1944 an explosion took place at Port Chicago, Contra Costa that killed 332 people -- 202 of them African Americans. The explosion also injured 390 others.

Fifty of the 258 surviving African Americans refused to load more bombs two weeks later under the same conditions.

On Aug. 9, 1944, there was a work stoppage and two days later the actions of these sailors were termed "mutiny" at the site near where the plaque low lays.

Although the group of soldiers stood firm, they were subsequently charged and found guilty of mutiny. However, these convictions ultimately helped the desegregation of all branches of the service. The plaque contains 50 stones, one for each sailor.

The 50 men were convicted of mutiny and sentenced to 15 years of prison and hard labor, as well as a dishonorable discharge. Forty-seven of the 50 were released in January 1946; the remaining three served additional months in prison.

During and after the trial, questions were raised about the fairness and legality of the court-martial proceedings. Protests in 1944 and 1945 led the Navy to change its practices and initiate the desegregation of its forces beginning in February 1946.

McGriff-Payne was asked by the Times-Herald if she believed the Port Chicago 50 story resonates even more in light of the recent Black Lives Matter protests.

"Of course! Here we are 76 years later, asking for some of the same justices," McGriff-Payne said. "Back in the 1940's I can only imagine that a lot of these people felt like they had no power at all. But we're now starting to feel like we do have some power and that we can change things. So this is not lost on me.

Also helping in putting Friday's event together was Jim Kern, the executive director of the Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum. Kern said the topic of Port Chicago's 50 is one that often comes up.

"We get a lot of people at the museum asking about this," Kern said. "Sharon mentioned we have an archive collection of photographs and documents related to the trial. And that collection, even if it's not on permanent exhibit, it's still one of the most often requested things we have. Certain things we don't keep in deep storage because we know a lot of people coming in and asking about it."

During the ceremony the group said that there are possible plans to extend the memorial and add signage, a flagpole and a grass area. Until then, McGriff-Payne and others are happy to have something.

"I'm touched by this area, this memorial, I'm grateful for the city for the memorial," McGriff-Payne.

The list of the Port Chicago 50 sailors whose names were read were Julius J. Allen, Mack Anderson, Douglas G. Anthony, William E. Banks, Arnett Baugh, Morris Berry, Martin A. Bordenave, Ernest D. Brown, Robert L. Burnage, Mentor G. Burns, Zack Credle, Jack P. Crittenden, Hayden R. Curd, Charles L. David, Jr, Bennon Dees, George W. Diamond, Kenneth C. Dixon, Julius Dixon, John H. Dunn, Melvin W. Ellis, William Fleece, James Floyd, Ernest J. Gaines, John L. Gipson, Charles C. Gray, Ollie L. Green, Harry E. Grimes, Herbert Davis, Charles N. Hazzard, Frank L. Henry, Richard W. Hill, Theodore King, Perry L. Knox, William H. Lock, Edward L. Longmire, Miller Matthews, Augustus P. Mayor, Howard McGee, Lloyd McKinney, Alpohnso McPherson, Freddie Meeks, Cecil Miller, Fleetwood H. Postell, Edward Saunders, Cyril O. Sheppard, Joseph R. Small, William C. Suber, Edward L. Waldrop, Charles S. Widemon and Albert Williams, Jr.

This article is written by Thomas Gase from Times-Herald, Vallejo, Calif. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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