Well, Steve Sheinkin and his new book The Port Chicago 50 were at the YALSA Symposium in Austin last weekend, and I was lucky enough to meet Steve and get a copy of his new book.
The Port Chicago 50 is the story of World War II's worst stateside disaster: on July 17th, 1944 ammunition being loaded onto two ships bound for the Pacific exploded in Port Chicago, in Contra Costa County in California. The explosions killed 320 servicemen and injured 390 others. Most of the dead were African-American. The surviving black sailors were ordered to return to the exact same unsafe and unfair working conditions. More than 200 of the men refused, saying they were standing up for justice. The Navy called it mutiny and threatened that anyone not returning to work would face the firing squad. Fifty men did not back down; they became known as The Port Chicago 50.
From the New York Times review:
Like we did with the book BOMB, I think we should all read The Port Chicago 50 together. We'll read a few chapters each week, discuss what we read in 'comments', watch a few cool videos (posted on the blog), learn some new vocabulary, and read some related articles.Young adult readers are likely to be shocked by Sheinkin’s portrayal of institutional racism in 1940s America. So often Americans think of the war years as a time when the nation pulled together in a democratizing common effort. That myth clearly leaves out the African-American experience. Thurgood Marshall, then the chief special counsel for the N.A.A.C.P., went to California to observe the Chicago 50 trial. “This is not an individual case,” he said. “This is not 50 men on trial for mutiny. This is the Navy on trial for its whole vicious policy toward Negroes.”Marshall’s appeal of the guilty verdict was rejected. The trial, however, succeeded in bringing to light the unfairness of segregation in the military, and in February 1946 the Navy became the first branch to allow African-Americans to participate equally in all assignments and activities. The Chicago 50 were never officially exonerated, but were released from hard labor after 16 months and, with no fanfare, allowed to return to service.Sheinkin tells this shameful history with the deft, efficient pacing of a novelist. And while photographs, double-spaced type and sunburst graphics at the start of each chapter make the book visually appealing to young readers, “The Port Chicago 50” is just as suitable for adults. The seriousness and breadth of Sheinkin’s research can be seen in his footnotes and lists of sources, which include oral histories, documentaries and Navy documents. It’s an impressive work and an inspiring one. These men stood up for themselves despite great personal risk. As Martin Bordenave, one of the 50, said of the ordeal, “Everything we’ve gotten, we’ve fought and suffered for.” He concluded, “You gotta holler loud, you know.”
If you are interested, read the first four chapters (First Hero, The Policy, Port Chicago, Work and Liberty) over Thanksgiving break, and check back here on December 1st.
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My first thought as I began reading this book: I can't believe that I have never heard the story of The Port Chicago 50!