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Part of the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial, commemorating the site where hundreds of sailors and civilians, most of whom were African American, died in a July 1944 explosion during the loading of munitions on a cargo vessel.

When Rev. Diana McDaniel was a child, she remembered the adults in her family talk about Port Chicago during holiday gatherings and the conversation wasn't pleasant.

She couldn't understand the reason for the angry tone of the discussion. She later realized her uncle had been a part of World War II history -- he served at Port Chicago during the explosion in July 1944, in which hundreds of military and civilian personnel were killed and injured, most of them enlisted African-American sailors.

Several years later, McDaniel had the opportunity to tour Port Chicago with her church group.

"We took the tour, found out about the whole story and thought, 'Now, what are we going to do?'" said McDaniel, senior minister of Unity Church of San Leandro.

She and other community members active in promoting the history of Port Chicago formed the Friends of Port Chicago National Memorial to help the National Park Service raise awareness and funds for the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial.

In 1994, the memorial was created by Congress by legislation authored by Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, and signed by President Bill Clinton. On Oct. 28, 2009, President Barack Obama signed into law a bill authored by Miller that made the memorial a full and permanent unit of the National Park System, McDaniel said.

To commemorate the historical significance of the tragedy of Port Chicago and its impact on African-American history -- which spurred desegregation of the United States military -- the Friends of Port Chicago and the National Park Service will present "The Port Chicago Disaster at 70: A Symposium on Race and the Military During World War II," from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. July 17, at Diablo Valley College.

"This is the first time we'll hold a symposium," said McDaniel, president of the Friends board.

She said that John A. Lawrence, a fellow board member who served as Chief of Staff to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and who played a major role in the creation of the Port Chicago memorial as well as securing a presidential pardon for Freddie Meeks, one of the 50 sailors who was court-martialed after the explosion for refusing to load munitions, suggested the idea to have a symposium for the community.

Camarin Madigan, a Friends board member, said her law firm, Bingham McCutchen LLP, has been very involved with the group for a long time. One of the firm's former partners formed the nonprofit entity and several attorneys were involved with the petition to form the national park.

"I was honored to be asked to work with the Friends group, first as a legal adviser and then as a board member," Madigan said. "I am particularly proud that I am able to bring my young children to the annual events so that they learn about our history and my work with the Friends group."

Last year, as the board was deciding how to mark the 70th anniversary of the explosion at Port Chicago, they knew that they wanted to do something that involved the families of the survivors as well as the community, Madigan said.

"We hope that the symposium will both educate and start the dialogue about the importance of Port Chicago in our history, but also in present-day civil rights struggles. The events at Port Chicago instigated desegregation in the military, which will be discussed by the first panel (Race in the Military During World War II). This leads directly into the second panel (Teaching Port Chicago: A Case Study of Race in America), which brings the history to the present day and how we teach our history to our children."

The symposium will feature educators well-versed in Port Chicago history, including Leon Litwack, professor emeritus of history, UC Berkeley, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for "Been in the Storm So Long: the Aftermath of Slavery;" Maggi Morehouse, associate professor of history at Coastal Carolina University, author of "Fighting in the Jim Crow Army: Black Men and Women Remember World War II;" Carolyn Johnston, professor of history and American studies at Eckerd College, author of "My Father's War: Fighting with the Buffalo Soldiers in World War II;" Steve Sheinkin, author of "The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny and the Fight for Civil Rights;" and J. Vern Cromartie, professor of sociology at Contra Costa College.

Robert Allen, retired adjunct professor of African American studies at UC Berkeley and author of "The Port Chicago Mutiny," will moderate the symposium along with Lawrence.

"Steve Sheinkin wanted to tell the history of Port Chicago because it was not in history books in school," McDaniel said. "We want to get the story out more, get educators to talk about it and tell how they're already teaching the Port Chicago story. This symposium was created to broaden and deepen people's knowledge of it. Many people have lived in this area and don't know about it."

if you go
WHAT: The Port Chicago Disaster at 70: A Symposium on Race and the Military During World War II
WHEN: 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., July 17
WHERE: Diablo Valley College, 321 Golf Club Road, Pleasant Hill
INFORMATION: Free, but registration is required by signing up online at http://portchicagomemorial.org, or by calling 925-695-PORT (925-695-7678)