The Port Chicago 50 by Steve Sheinkin
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan
Cindy: Every time I think I’ve read the last of the horrific stories of racism in this country, someone like the Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling speaks up or I read a new young adult nonfiction book that unearths a little known story that infuriates me. The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights (Roaring Brook 2014) is such a book. During WWII the Navy was as segregated as the rest of the country and so it was that some all-black units were assigned to San Francisco’s Port Chicago and ordered to load ammunition onto ships with no training and under dangerous conditions. Sheinkin’s riveting and at times painful text sets the stage for the explosion to come. The exact cause of the blast remains a mystery, but the result was very clear. 320 service men were killed by the blast that also threw men out of their bunks in barracks over a mile away. The survivors were ordered into the waters in the days to follow to retrieve pieces of their comrades and then they were relocated to another base and ordered to start loading munitions again.
It takes a lot for a Navy man to refuse to obey the order from a superior, but these men took a stand and agreed to follow any order but to continue to load ammunition under the same circumstances and without proper training. They were charged with mutiny, imprisoned on a ship, and pressured to relent. Some did, but fifty men banded together and held their ground and went to trial for mutiny, despite the fact that their actions did not fit the definition of the charge.
My middle schoolers hand sell Sheinkin’s award-winning The Bomb and the endlessly fascinating Lincoln’s Grave Robbers to their friends and classmates and this one will be no different. The striking cover and Sheinkin’s name will draw them in, the storytelling will keep them hooked.
Lynn: Cindy is right – Sheinkin’s name definitely drew me in and the story kept me turning the pages. This was a new story for me. I had never heard of this appalling story and the situation left me horrified. Sheinkin’s focus is on the discrimination and horrifying treatment the black sailors received and on the dilemma they found themselves in. Underlying it all was the belief held by so many in naval authority and reflected in the official report that followed the explosion:
“The consensus of opinion of the witnesses is that the colored enlisted personnel are neither temperamentally nor intellectually capable of handling high explosives…”
The injustice of this attitude compounds as the story unfolds and it is a hard history to fathom. Were the sailors right to refuse the order? Were they guilty of treason? These questions should spark a fascinating debate for readers.
Another aspect of this book that I especially appreciated was the picture of the young Thurgood Marshall and the efforts of the fledgling civil rights efforts in the midst of war time. Fascinating and thought-provoking this is a book that will be wonderful for classroom use with its accessibility and multifaceted issues.
Happily it is garnering praise and awards. This past weekend it won the 2014 Boston Globe Horn Book Awards for Excellence in Children’s Literature in Nonfiction. Huzzah!
Common Core Standards
Trace and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient to support the claims.
Steve Sheinkin presents both sides of this court case. Divide students into two groups, one representing the Navy and one the defense for the Port Chicago 50. In an essay, ask students to enumerate the claims of one side, evaluate whether the reasoning is sound and supports the claim. Ask them to cite specific sections of the text.