J. Vern Cromartie, professor of sociology at Contra Costa College, has come to expect blank stares when he tells students about the Port Chicago Naval Magazine disaster.

"There are very few who know the story when they come into my class," he said. "I tell them it's important to know the social history of the area in which you live."

The wartime munitions explosion that claimed 320 lives on July 17, 1944, was a tragedy by any measure, but what set it apart was the perspective it lent on racism in our country. Only black sailors were assigned the dangerous duty of loading bombs and explosives onto war ships, and blacks accounted for the vast majority of fatalities. Unsafe conditions and hurried work paces came with the assignment.

Cromartie, who's black, is intimately familiar with the devastation. His father, Jimmie Lee, was an Army MP stationed near the accident site and visited the disaster site the next day. He helped sort through twisted chunks of metal, splintered wood and body parts. Most human remains were beyond recognition.

"I was 22 when he told me the story," Cromartie said. "That was 1976. It was the first time I ever saw my father cry. It's one thing to see the effects of war in a John Wayne film. It's another to see a piece of somebody right before you."

Barely three weeks after the explosion, when survivors were ordered to resume the same duties at a new location -- Mare Island Naval Shipyard -- 50 black sailors who refused to work without safety improvements were convicted of mutiny. Offered pardons years later, all but one declined, insisting they committed no crime.


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Separate but unequal treatment in the armed forces persisted until 1948, when President Harry S. Truman ordered the end of military segregation. Cromartie said Port Chicago played a significant role in that decision.

"People used Port Chicago as a way to educate higher officials and policymakers about what was going on," he said. "The reason so many black men died is they were restricted to certain types of jobs."

Cromartie was one of several scholars and experts who commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Port Chicago disaster at a half-day symposium Thursday at Diablo Valley College. They explained its historical importance in exposing the racial discrimination embedded in society.

Author Steve Sheinkin, who chronicled the disaster in "The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny and the Fight for Civil Rights," said black sailors were not only relegated to dangerous jobs in unsafe conditions, they were denied the right to register complaints.

Leon Litwack, professor emeritus of history at UC Berkeley, said the events of Port Chicago laid bare a great hypocrisy: African-American servicemen were expected to risk their lives in protection of the very rights and freedoms they were denied before, during and after the war.

Cromartie witnessed racism's effects firsthand. His MP father, who served with distinction during the war, sought for years to become a police officer after returning to his hometown of Screven, Ga. His job applications were ignored, year after year, until the Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination.

"I tell people you don't have to go back to slavery to see what happened to the black population in this country," Cromartie said. "You can just look at the period between 1896 and 1964."

One of the first places to look is the Port Chicago Naval Magazine disaster.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.