Black Sailors and Shipworkers at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, 1866–1966 | Episode 195

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The celebrate Black History Month and the 220th birthday at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, we are looking at the obstacles and opportunities that Black people encountered at the Brooklyn Navy Yard from the end of the Civil War through the Yard’s closure a century later. The program will examine the long history of African-Americans in the maritime trades, their systematic exclusion from the uniformed ranks of the US Navy in the Jim Crow era, and the new opportunities that emerged during World War II. We will look at profiles of trailblazers, innovators, and activists who worked and served there, and how the Yard became an important to Black economic and cultural life in Brooklyn. This virtual program follows up where we left off with last year’s “An Unfree Fleet,” which looked at the Yard’s connections to the institution of slavery.

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The Port Chicago Disaster: Race and the Navy in World War II

This summer marks the 70th anniversary of the tragic events of Port Chicago, California, the worst home front disaster of World War II. 320 people were killed, most of them US Navy sailors, in an explosion at a naval munitions loading station, but it was more than just a tragic accident – the events leading up to and following the explosion exposed the appalling racial discrimination and mistreatment faced by African-American sailors during the war.

Located on central California’s Suisun Bay, Port Chicago was one of the largest and busiest weapons stations in the country, loading explosives onto ships bound for the Pacific Theater. All of the enlisted sailors carrying out these dangerous operations were African-American; all of their commanding officers were white. While many of these men had received training to pursue a naval rating, or a specific skill, they, like most of their black counterparts across the Navy, were employed only for manual labor. And the conditions at the port were incredibly dangerous. Commanders utilized “speed contests” to push the men to load more quickly, and almost none of the men had received specific instructions in ammunition loading or proper safety training.>> Continue reading