President Obama today signed Rep. George Miller’s (D-CA) legislation to allow the National Parks Service to preserve an important part of American civil rights history.
The Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial Enhancement Act of 2009, introduced by Miller in February, was signed by the President today as part of the FY2010 National Defense Authorization Act. Miller, who has spearheaded efforts to create the Port Chicago memorial and recognize the events that occurred there, represents the East Bay community in California where the WWII homefront memorial is located.
“Future generations of America’s children will forever have the opportunity to visit and learn from the historic events that took place at Port Chicago during WWII,” Miller said after the legislation was signed. “The munitions detonation at Port Chicago, the so-called mutiny, and the subsequent legal cases are a significant part of our nation’s struggle for civil rights and rightly helped lead to the desegregation of the US Navy. The legislation that the President signed today will ensure that the site is properly maintained and remains available to the public.”
The legislation signed by the President today designates the memorial and the five acres that encompass the Port Chicago Naval Magazine blast site as an official unit of the National Park Service. Previously, the memorial was considered only an “affiliated area” of the park service and no federal money could be spent on education, historic preservation, or efforts to increase public awareness. This official designation granted today allows the park service to appropriate funds, care for the memorial and increase access for future generations.
The National Park Service announced that Superintendent Martha Lee will oversee the new site. She presently oversees two other local park units that Miller created through legislation years ago — the Rosie the Riveter National Historical Park in Richmond and the John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez – as well as the Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site. Lee said she intends to immediately begin the process for hiring staff dedicated to telling this compelling story, both at the site and out in the nearby communities.
In addition to preserving the memorial, Miller’s legislation also authorizes the Interior Department to work with the City of Concord and the East Bay Regional Park District to establish and operate an interpretive center to allow visitors to learn about the events that took place at Port Chicago.
“Putting this memorial squarely in the capable hands of the National Park Service will ensure that Americans will have access to the compelling stories associated with this significant chapter in our history,” Miller said. “I’d also like to thank the Friends of the Port Chicago National Memorial, the National Parks Conservation Association, the City of Concord and the East Bay Regional Park District for their work, past and future, in supporting this legislation and in preserving the memorial.”
Lee also praised the groups’ participation. “We are committed, along with our partners – the Friends of Port Chicago, the City of Concord and the East Bay Regional Park District – in preserving the rich history and symbolism of this site,” she said.
Port Chicago History
On the night of July 17, 1944, in what is now Concord, CA, thousands of tons of ammunition being loaded for ships bound for the Pacific Theatre in WWII exploded. The blasts instantly killed 320 sailors at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine and wounded hundreds more, and damaged and destroyed merchant ships, the pier, a train, and the buildings of Port Chicago. Less than a month after the tragedy, three divisions were ordered to resume work at a new site a few miles away. Most of the men refused to continue their dangerous tasks until supervision, training, and working conditions were improved. In response, the Navy charged fifty men with conspiring to mutiny; all were convicted.
Nearly all of the men killed while handling ordinance at Port Chicago, and all of those convicted of mutiny, were African-American. Their courts martial had clear racial implications, and was a turning point in the nation’s history of a segregated military. Former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, a lawyer for the NAACP at the time, represented the sailors accused of mutiny.
Miller has long championed the Port Chicago issue and worked for nearly 20 years in Congress on behalf of the Port Chicago sailors and their families to preserve the historic site. His legislation in 1992 first designated the site of the Port Chicago Naval Magazine as a national memorial, and his subsequent efforts led to the pardon of one of the Port Chicago sailors. Since 1992, the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial has been managed by the National Park Service to remind Americans of the contributions made by the Port Chicago sailors. This summer marks the 65th anniversary of the events that took place at Port Chicago.