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The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights

Overview

An astonishing civil rights story from Newbery Honor winner and National Book Award finalist Steve Sheinkin.

On July 17, 1944, a massive explosion rocked the segregated Navy base at Port Chicago, California, killing more than 300 sailors who were at the docks, critically injuring off-duty men in their bunks, and shattering windows up to a mile away. On August 9th, 244 men refused to go back to work until unsafe and unfair conditions at the docks were addressed. When the ...

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The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights

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Overview

An astonishing civil rights story from Newbery Honor winner and National Book Award finalist Steve Sheinkin.

On July 17, 1944, a massive explosion rocked the segregated Navy base at Port Chicago, California, killing more than 300 sailors who were at the docks, critically injuring off-duty men in their bunks, and shattering windows up to a mile away. On August 9th, 244 men refused to go back to work until unsafe and unfair conditions at the docks were addressed. When the dust settled, fifty were charged with mutiny, facing decades in jail and even execution.

This is a fascinating story of the prejudice that faced black men and women in America's armed forces during World War II, and a nuanced look at those who gave their lives in service of a country where they lacked the most basic rights.

Finalist for the 2014 National Book Award for Young People's Literature
Winner of the 2014 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Nonfiction

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - Sarah Harrison Smith
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.
Publishers Weekly
★ 11/11/2013
Sheinkin delivers another meticulously researched WWII story, one he discovered while working on his Newbery Honor book, Bomb. The accidental explosion at Port Chicago, a California Navy base where African-American servicemen loaded ammunition onto ships, killed more than 300 soldiers and injured nearly 400. The author carefully details how this long-forgotten event from 1944 was pivotal in helping end segregation in the military. Though not as fast-paced as Bomb, the dialogue-laden narrative draws heavily on past interviews with the servicemen, telling the story from their perspective. Ordered to load ammunition without proper training—and often in a competitive atmosphere fostered by their white officers—50 African-American sailors refused to return to the same work after the disaster. Readers get a front-row seat at their mutiny trial through myriad trial transcript excerpts. Tried and convicted, their convictions still stand today despite efforts to expunge the now-deceased men’s records. Archival photos appear throughout, and an extensive bibliography, source notes, and index conclude this gripping, even horrific account of a battle for civil rights predating Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. Ages 10–14. Agent: Susan Cohen, Writers House. (Jan.)
From the Publisher
"Through effective research, Sheinkin re-creates a story that remains largely unknown to many Americans, and is one of the many from World War II about segregation and race that is important to explore with students." - School Library Journal, starred review

"Sheinkin delivers another meticulously researched WWII story, one he discovered while working on his Newbery Honor book, Bomb....Archival photos appear throughout, and an extensive bibliography, source notes, and index conclude this gripping, even horrific account of a battle for civil rights predating Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr." —Publishers Weekly, starred review 

 

"In this thoroughly researched and well-documented drama, Sheinkin lets the participants tell the story, masterfully lacing the narrative with extensive quotations drawn from oral histories, information from trial transcripts and archival photographs. The event, little known today, is brought to life and placed in historical context, with Eleanor Roosevelt, Thurgood Marshall and Jackie Robinson figuring in the story." - Kirkus Reviews, starred review

 

"Sheinkin follows Bomb (rev. 11/12) with an account of another aspect of the Second World War, stemming from an incident that seems small in scope but whose ramifications would go on to profoundly change the armed forces and the freedom of African Americans to serve their country." - The Horn Book

 

 

Through extensive research, Sheinkin effectively re-creates

School Library Journal
★ 02/01/2014
Gr 7 Up—In the summer of 1944, 50 sailors, all of them African American, were tried and convicted of mutiny by the U.S. Navy. They had refused to follow a direct order of loading dangerous rockets and munitions on ships bound for battle in the Pacific after an enormous explosion had killed more than 300 of their fellow sailors and other civilians working on the dock. At the heart of this story is the rampant racism that permeated the military at all levels, leaving minority sailors and soldiers to do the drudge work almost exclusively while their white counterparts served on the front lines. Through extensive research, Sheinkin effectively re-creates both the tense atmosphere at Port Chicago before and after the disaster as well as the events that led to the men's refusal of this one particular order that they felt put them directly in harm's way. Much of the tension in this account stems from the growing frustration that readers are meant to feel as bigotry and discrimination are encountered at every turn and at every level of the military. There is a wealth of primary-source material here, including interviews with the convicted sailors, court records, photographs, and other documents, all of which come together to tell a story that clearly had a huge impact on race relations in the military. This is a story that remains largely unknown to many Americans, and is one of the many from World War II about segregation and race that is important to explore with students. Abundant black-and-white photos, extensive source notes, and a thorough bibliography are included.—Jody Kopple, Shady Hill School, Cambridge, MA
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2013-11-20
On July 17, 1944, at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine 30 miles northeast of San Francisco, an explosion--the largest man-made explosion in history to that point--killed more than 300 men, leading to the largest mass trial in United States history. "[B]efore Brown v. Board of Education or Truman's executive order, before Rosa Parks or Jackie Robinson--before any of this, there was Port Chicago." At Port Chicago, Navy ships were loaded with bombs and ammunition. All of the officers were white, and all of the sailors handling the dangerous explosives were black, with no training in how to do their jobs. When the huge explosion flattened the base, 320 men were killed, 202 of them black sailors who had been loading the ammunition. When it came time to resume work, 50 black sailors refused to work under the unsafe conditions on the segregated base and were charged with mutiny, with the possibility of execution. In this thoroughly researched and well-documented drama, Sheinkin lets the participants tell the story, masterfully lacing the narrative with extensive quotations drawn from oral histories, information from trial transcripts and archival photographs. The event, little known today, is brought to life and placed in historical context, with Eleanor Roosevelt, Thurgood Marshall and Jackie Robinson figuring in the story. An important chapter in the civil rights movement, presenting 50 new heroes. (source notes, bibliography, acknowledgments, picture credits) (Nonfiction. 10-14)
Children's Literature - Sharon Salluzzo
Although African Americans had fought in America’s military from the start of the Revolutionary War, they were still segregated and discriminated against when they volunteered for duty in World War II. They were assigned to the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in California (near San Francisco). Although they had not training in handling explosives, their job was loading bombs and heavy ammunition onto navy ships. “All the officers…were white. All the sailors handling explosives were black.” After the inevitable major explosion occurred, many of the men refused to load the ships until safety issues were addressed. 50 of them were charged with mutiny. Their trials were so full of prejudice that Thurgood Marshall, then chief special counsel for the NAACP, agreed to help them. Through oral histories, documentaries, interviews, family stories, books, articles, pamphlets, and navy records, Sheinkin recounts the injustices faced by these men, and the toll it took on their lives. He captivates the reader from the first sentence and lets the story play out, allowing the reader to understand why this little-known event is an important one. Readers will gain an understanding of how discrimination hurts not only the individual but also the entire nation. Includes black & white photographs, source notes, lists of works cited, acknowledgments, photo credits, and index. Be sure to recommend this for studies on World War II, African American History, U.S. discrimination and prejudice, as it is compelling reading and an important event in American history. Reviewer: Sharon Salluzzo; Ages 10 to 14.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781596437968
  • Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
  • Publication date: 1/21/2014
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 57,907
  • Age range: 10 - 15 Years
  • Lexile: 950L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Steve Sheinkin  is the award-winning author of several fascinating books on American history, including The Notorious Benedict Arnold, which won the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults, the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award for nonfiction, and received three starred reviews; and Bomb, a National Book Award finalist and recipient of five starred reviews. He lives in Saratoga Springs, NY.

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Read an Excerpt

FIRST HERO

 

 

HE WAS GATHERING dirty laundry when the bombs started falling.

It was early on the morning of December 7, 1941, at the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and Mess Attendant Dorie Miller had just gone on duty aboard the battleship USS West Virginia. A six-foot-three, 225-pound Texan, Miller was the ship’s heavyweight boxing champ. But his everyday duties were somewhat less challenging. As one of the ship’s African American mess attendants, he cooked and cleaned for the white sailors.

Miller was below deck, picking up clothes, when the first torpedo slammed into the side of the West Virginia. Sirens shrieked and a voice roared over the loudspeaker:

“Japanese are attacking! All hands, General Quarters!”

Miller ran to his assigned battle station, an ammunition magazine—and saw it had already been blown apart.

He raced up to the deck and looked up at a bright blue sky streaked with enemy planes and falling bombs. Japan’s massive attack had taken the base by surprise, and thunderous explosions were rocking American ships all over the harbor. Two direct hits cracked through the deck of the West Virginia, sending flames and shrapnel flying.

Amid the smoke and chaos, an officer saw Miller and shouted for him to help move the wounded. Miller began lifting men, carrying them farther from the spreading fires.

Then he spotted a dead gunner beside an anti-aircraft machine gun. He’d never been instructed in the operation of this weapon. But he’d seen it used. That was enough.

Jumping behind the gun, Miller tilted the barrel up and took aim at a Japanese plane. “It wasn’t hard,” he’d later say. “I just pulled the trigger, and she worked fine.”

As Miller blasted away, downing at least one enemy airplane, several more torpedoes blew gaping holes in the side of the West Virginia. The ship listed sharply to the left as it took on water.

The captain, who lay dying of a belly wound, ordered, “Abandon ship!”

Sailors started climbing over the edge of the ship, leaping into the water. Miller scrambled around the burning, tilting deck, helping wounded crewmembers escape the sinking ship before jumping to safety himself.

*   *   *

After the battle, an officer who had witnessed Miller’s bravery recommended him for the Navy Cross, the highest decoration given by the Navy. “For distinguished devotion to duty,” declared Miller’s official Navy Cross citation, “extraordinary courage and disregard for his own personal safety during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor.”

In early 1942, soon after the United States had entered World War II, Admiral Chester Nimitz personally pinned the medal to Miller’s chest. “This marks the first time in this conflict that such high tribute has been made in the Pacific Fleet to a member of his race,” Nimitz declared. “I’m sure that the future will see others similarly honored for brave acts.”

And then Dorie Miller, one of the first American heroes of World War II, went back to collecting laundry. He was still just a mess attendant.

It was the only position open to black men in the United States Navy.

 

Text copyright © 2014 by Steve Sheinkin

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