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Council considers naming new park after Thurgood Marshall, Port Chicago 50

The Concord City Council on Tuesday will discuss whether to support naming the East Bay Regional Park coming to the former Concord Naval Weapons Station after former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who represented the 50 sailors who stood up against racism after the Port Chicago explosion in 1944.

Park district staff is recommending its board officially name the park “Thurgood Marshall Regional Park — Home of the Port Chicago 50” at its June 1 meeting. The Concord City Council will decide whether to send a letter in support of the name at Tuesday’s meeting.

The 2,540-acre park is part of the massive redevelopment effort in the 5,046-acre site, which would also include 13,000 units of housing and millions of square feet of commercial space. The Navy abandoned the base in 1999.

Library of Congress Thurgood Marshall, former NAACP counsel and U.S. Supreme Court justice, represented the 50 African American sailors who were charged and convicted of mutiny after refusing to return to work loading munitions following the Port Chicago explosion in 1944 where 320 men were killed, the majority African American sailors.

Marshall challenged the Navy segregation policies while advocating for 50 African American sailors who refused to load ammunition onto ships in the weeks following the Port Chicago explosion. Unsafe conditions led to two ships exploding on July 17, 1944, killing 320 men — two-thirds of them African American — and wounding another 390. The blast was so powerful it reportedly blew out windows as far away as San Francisco.

The loading of weapons was done exclusively by African American sailors, and supervised by white commanders, who often pushed sailors to work harder while competing to see who could finish faster. The explosion accounted for approximately a quarter of all African American deaths in World War II, according to a park district report.

Not long after the tragedy, 50 sailors faced mutiny charges after refusing to go back to work loading ammunition at Mare Island in Vallejo, while white commanders were granted leave. The sailors contacted Marshall, then lead counsel for the NAACP. Marshall sat in on the court martial proceedings and published a series of articles and spoke in public about what he said wasn’t a case about 50 sailors, but the Navy “on trial for its whole vicious policy toward Negroes.”

Though all 50 were convicted and sentenced to prison, Marshall’s campaign was widely credited with President Harry Truman’s decision to end segregation in the armed forces in 1948.

Local U.S. Rep. Mark Desaulnier (D-Walnut Creek) is requesting $10 million in federal funds to build a joint visitor center at the park, featuring the history of the Port Chicago disaster.

The city is currently going through the process of finding a master developer for the project. Lennar Five Point was selected as the initial developer in 2016, but pulled out last year, when its negotiating agreement expired after if couldn’t reach consensus with local labor unions.

The city went back to the drawing board and expedited the process and is trying to have the new developer in place by August.

The Concord City Council meets virtually at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. The meeting can be joined at https://bit.ly/3470nQW — webinar ID 91484453356, passcode 270424 — or by calling (669) 900-6833.

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