Dorothy's List: 'The Port Chicago 50'

Nov 2, 2015

In 1944, a disastrous explosion rocked a Naval base in California called Port Chicago. The racially segregated Navy base had dangerous and unfair working conditions for African American sailors there. After the explosion, a large group of sailors refused to return to work loading ammunition under the same dangerous conditions. They were tried for mutiny. Those men were called the Port Chicago 50.

That true story is told in the book The Port Chicago 50 by Saratoga Springs author Steve Sheinkin. This book has been nominated for Vermont’s Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award.

But before getting into the story, Sheldon Elementary School Librarian Lyn Lauffer transported a classroom of fifth and sixth graders back in time with some help from Duke Ellington.

In the mid-1940s, while some African-Americans were redefining popular music, others had signed up to fight for freedom and democracy overseas in World War II. They volunteered to fight even though they weren’t treated as equals here in the United States. In fact, even in the U.S. Navy, sailors were segregated and black recruits were only allowed to do menial jobs like laundry and loading cargo.

These Sheldon Elementary fifth and sixths graders are getting down to some 1940s swing music.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

Sheldon Elementary School students – like sixth grader Calla Bourdeau –had questions about the story for the book’s author, Steve Sheinkin:

Calla Bourdeau: What inspired you to write this book?

Steve Sheinkin: This is a really little-known story, even amongst people who know a lot about World War II and the civil rights movement. I came across this little-known story of this explosion in Port Chicago, California, and then the subsequent civil rights showdown. And I just got really drawn in to it.

This group of young readers at Sheldon Elementary School got really drawn into the story as well. They were outraged by the prejudices black soldiers and sailors faced every day during World War II.

It wasn’t only the jobs that were segregated. Black and white recruits slept in different barracks. They stood in separate lines for food. And there were other examples of segregation and injustice:

"Well I thought it was outrageous in the book that they actually separated the blood supplies from the white men from the black men," says Grace Peyrat.

"And what I thought was outrageous in the book was that the African Americans went to jail for nothing, I mean just because of the color on their skin," says Hayden Dixon.

"When they started arresting African American soldiers for not doing what they’re told, even though they were scared," says Cameron Schryver, who wanted to know which part of the story was most upsetting to author Steven Sheinkin.

Cameron Schryver: What was the most outrageous part of the book, in your opinion?

Steve Sheinkin: There were several things, but if I had to pick one it was the racism in and around military bases, faced by men in uniform and women in uniform as well in the U.S. The fact that – we saw this with some of the Port Chicago men – that they would go off-base and either face outright refusal to be served at a place like a bar. Or they would have to walk through certain, quote, permitted streets. As if they weren’t permitted to walk on certain streets in cities in the United States. And that is just outrageous. And, meanwhile, they’re wearing the uniform of the United States military at a time when the country is quite literally fighting for its freedom, for the freedom of its people, and really the whole world.

Throughout the book, we hear from a lot of the men who served at Port Chicago. Sixth grader Nicolas Pauquette asked how author Steve Sheinkin found his sources.

Nicolas Paquette: While collecting data, how did you track the people who actually survived it? How did you track and find them down, for eyewitness reports?

Steve Sheinkin: Yeah, we’re dealing with a story that is over 70 years old now. So most of the guys – as far as we know, actually, all 50 of the men who were accused of mutiny, charged and convicted, are dead. So I wasn’t able to talk to any of them. I was able to talk to several of their family members.

But, as Steve Sheinkin tells Sheldon sixth grader Calla Bourdeau, he did find a book about the Port Chicago 50, written decades ago by a University of California, Berkeley professor named Robert Allen.

"And what was great about that is that he, back in his college days, had actually met and interviewed many of the main figures in this story. And if he hadn’t done that their stories – The Port Chicago 50 – their stories would be gone," says Sheinkin. "But Robert tracked them down in a heroic bit of detective work, I think, and interviewed them. And a few years ago when I contacted him he very generously shared those oral histories with me. And that was the main bulk of the research I did because I was then able to tell the story through their words."

Fifth grader Hayden Dixon asked Sheinkin who his favorite character is and why, citing the charismatic leader Joe Small as his own.

Steve Sheinkin: I agree with you, Joe Small is the most compelling character in the book. The other one I’d throw in there would be Thurgood Marshall, the young civil rights lawyer who took up the case and later became a Supreme Court justice and is more famous for that, by far than he is for his participation in this little-known story.

But Joe Small – it’s just like writing a novel or a movie, you need great characters. In nonfiction you don’t get to make them up, so you have to get lucky. And we were lucky with this story that there was someone so compelling as Joe.

From tracking down eyewitness accounts to pouring over oral histories and news archives, writing a nonfiction story involves a lot of research. Sixth grader Grace Peyrat said she thought the book was exciting, but she wondered if researching and writing it didn’t get dull.

Grace Peyrat: When you were doing your research, how come you never got bored with writing it? You know, like, "Oh this is getting so boring..." and, "Oh, my eyes are killing me…"

Steve Sheinkin: That’s funny. I hear you. I do hear you. And I could be bored too by certain subjects, definitely, but the great thing about my job is I get to pick my subjects. So I did choose this and go in with eyes open saying, “Alright, I’m going to spend two years on this, so I better be interested.” And luckily I am.

Shienkin says, rather than a boring project, he likes to think of research as detective work.

"It may sound like a nerdy sort of detective work, and it is! But that's really what it is to me. I look for clues. And so it's never boring because I find one interesting story and hope that there'll be a clue in that story." - author Steve Sheinkin

"It may sound like a nerdy sort of detective work, and it is! But that’s really what it is to me. I look for clues. And so it’s never boring because I find one interesting story and hope that there’ll be a clue in that story. Almost like it will lead me to another suspect to interview," says Sheinkin.

"That leads me to another story–usually it’s a story, but it could be an interview or it could be someone I try to track down and ask questions to. It might just be another book in another library, but it’s still kind of has that pattern of solving a mystery. And so that absolutely keeps me interested."

The Sheldon students have been doing some pretty in-depth research of their own into what it was like for black Americans during World War II.  They’ve read two nonfiction books – Steve Sheinkin’s The Port Chicago 50, and Tanya Lee Stones’s Courage Has No Color. That book tells the story of The Triple Nickles, America’s first black paratroopers. It was nominated last year for the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award.

With the help of librarian Lyn Lauffer, the Sheldon students are using online resources to learn about civil rights and cultural heroes from Martin Luther King Jr. to singer Marion Anderson. And perhaps they'll be inspired by Steve Sheinkin to do some research of their own.

Next month on Dorothy’s List, Unfriended by Rachel Vail. Dorothy's List is supported by the VPR Journalism Fund.