At its annual installation of officers on January 19, the Contra Costa County Bar Association conferred awards on three African-American sailors who served at Port Chicago during World War II. The CCCBA’s Port Chicago Task Force recognized the sailors with Port Chicago Hero Awards, noting their courage in the face of adversity before, during and after the Port Chicago Disaster. Four Port Chicago Service Awards were presented to recognize dedicated advocacy on behalf of the sailors who served there during World War II.
The massive explosion on July 17, 1944 killed 320 men and wounded hundreds more. Two hundred two of those killed and all of the Port Chicago 50 were African-American sailors who served at a time when the Navy was segregated and they were not allowed to serve in any combat units due to their race.
Following the Disaster, the Navy found 50 men guilty of mutiny when they refused to return to work loading ammunition under dangerous conditions that violated the Navy’s regulations.
In February 2022, the CCCBA formed the Port Chicago Task Force to raise awareness of the Port Chicago Disaster; and to advocate for the exoneration of the Port Chicago 50.
The three Port Chicago Hero Awards were presented posthumously to John B. Felisbret, of New York state, who was “about 17 years old” when he died in the Disaster. Two members of the Port Chicago 50, Joseph R. Small, Sr., of New Jersey, and Jack P. Crittenden, of Alabama, also received Hero Awards. Both Small and Crittenden were convicted of mutiny and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor confinement, before their sentences were commuted.
The Port Chicago Service Awards went to John Lawrence, who worked diligently on the formation of the National Park Service’s Port Chicago Naval Memorial Magazine, at the Concord Naval Weapons Station near Concord California; Reverend Diana McDaniel co-founder of the Friends of Port Chicago, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of the site, promotion of the history of the Disaster and the mutiny trials, and the exoneration of the Port Chicago 50; Willie Mims, who has been a community activist in the Bay Area, serving in executive leadership roles in the NAACP and other civil rights organizations. Mr. Mims worked at Port Chicago in the 1960s, and in the decades since, he has been advocating for the exoneration of the Port Chicago 50; and Jonathan U. Lee, a Bar Association director who serves as Chair of the Task Force.
The CCCBA Port Chicago Task Force is actively communicating exoneration arguments to federal, state, and local leaders, as well as the Department of the Navy. They aim to achieve exoneration by the 80th anniversary of the Disaster on July 17, marked by a public ceremony at Thurgood Marshall Regional Park in Concord.
Exoneration arguments emphasize the absence of due process in the mutiny trial proceedings, the excessive charge of mutiny, lawful dissent against an unlawful order, and evidentiary restrictions imposed on the defense during the trial. The Task Force asserts that the public outcry over the mutiny convictions, led by Thurgood Marshall, played a crucial role in President Harry Truman’s 1946 executive order desegregating the armed services.
For information on the CCCBA Port Chicago Task Force visit www.cccba.org/port-chicago-task-force. Supporters are encouraged to sign a petition to “Exonerate the Port Chicago 50” at https://www.change.org/p/exonerate-the-port-chicago-50.