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Vallejo to honor Port Chicago 50 black sailors, unveil memorial plaque and bench

By November 7, 2019 No Comments
Black sailors loading ammunition on a ship at Port Chicago. (Photo courtesy of National Park Service, Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial)

A ceremony on Saturday in Vallejo will pay tribute to the black sailors known as the Port Chicago 50.

A massive munitions explosion at the U.S. Navy installation at Port Chicago in Contra Costa County on July 17, 1944,  killed 320 men, critically injured hundreds more, destroyed two ships and badly damaged the town that once existed there. Of the dead, 202 were African American.

The physical shockwaves were felt around the Bay Area, shattering windows as far away as El Cerrito, and the reverberations would continue after 50 black sailors, traumatized by the deadly blast, defied orders not to resume loading ammunition on ships in unsafe conditions.

The location of the plaque site is at the end of Ryder Street opposite the Mare Island shipyards in Vallejo. (Image courtesy of Chris Treadway)

That decision, which led to their trial and conviction for mutiny, came as they were being held at the naval shipyards at Mare Island in Vallejo.

The ceremony, scheduled at 11 a.m. Nov. 9 at the foot of Ryder Street in Vallejo just across the water from Mare Island, will include the reading of a proclamation honoring the sailors and an unveiling of a memorial plaque and bench acknowledging the men and their legacy. 

As publicity for the dedication notes, “The mutiny convictions of the Port Chicago 50 ultimately helped the desegregation of all branches of the service.”

Newspaper caption: This picture shows all that remains of the $250,000 recreation hall at the Port Chicago naval ammunitions depot. Splintered sides lie on the ground, part of the roof has collapsed and all of the windows are smashed. (Image courtesy of Chris Treadway)

The plaque site, also near the area where segregated barracks housed black sailors during World War II, “will be a tangible and permanent reminder of an imprtant chapter in Vallejo’s local history.”

The featured speaker at the ceremony will be Sharon McGriff-Payne, an author and historian and lifelong Vallejo resident who was a key member of the effort to establish an official commemoration to the Port Chicago 50.

There will also be proclamations and remarks by U.S. Rep.  Mike Thompson, Vallejo Mayor Bob Sampayan and state Sen. Bill Dodd, among other dignitaries.

With the dedication, Vallejo will join other historic U.S. Navy sites in the Bay Area in commemorating the sailors. The Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial was established in 1992 and dedicated in 1994.

Earlier this year the history museum on Treasure Island, where the trial of the Port Chicago 50 was held 75 years ago, held a tribute exhibition (https://www.localnewsmatters.org/2019/01/25/remembering-the-port-chicago-disaster-and-trial/).