The Classroom Bookshelf
Inside The Classroom Bookshelf

The Port Chicago 50

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights
Written by Steve Sheinkin
Published by Roaring Brook Press, 2014
ISBN 978-1-59643-796-8
Grades 7 and Up
Book Review
“[I]t’s important to remember that before Brown v. Board of Education or Truman’s executive order, before Rosa Parks or Jackie Robinson— before any of this, there was Port Chicago.” What is Port Chicago? Who, you might wonder? The Port Chicago fifty were fifty enlisted African American servicemen in the U.S. Navy, who refused to return to work loading munitions during World War II after surviving an explosion at the Port Chicago, California naval base, and witnessing the death of over 300 men, the majority of them fellow untrained African American servicemen. The men killed and those who survived were part of the first group of African Americans allowed to serve in the U.S. Navy in a position other than mess attendant. In the midst of World War II and the segregated U.S. military, they were asked to perform a highly dangerous task without any specialized training, a task reserved exclusively for the African American enlistments. This relatively unknown early catalyst of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States is brought to young adult readers in riveting short chapters that burst with primary source quotes that work like dialogue, helping to fuel Sheinkin’s trademark stealth pacing. As an exploration of the Civil Rights Movement, another window into World War II on the homefront, a launching pad for original research, and as a mentor text for writing engaging nonfiction, this book can serve many roles in middle and high school classrooms.
Teaching Ideas & Invitations

Grades 7 and Up
When is Doing Something Wrong Right? Were the men who refused to obey orders and return to loading ammunitions at Port Chicago right to do so? They had not been given proper training on handling munitions, and had just witnessed the death of over 300 fellow servicemen. Were they wrong? They were enlisted members of the U.S. Navy, and the military depends on obedience within the chain of command. What do your students think was the “right” choice?  Hold a Socratic seminar in which students mull over and consider these opposing perspectives.
Exploring Segregation in World War II. Read through the first teaching idea from The Classroom Bookshelf entry on Courage has No Color by Tanya Stone (2013), and add The Port Chicago 50 to the list of books that can be read in literature circles exploring segregation and prejudice in the U.S. military during World War II.
Oral History with Veterans. Sheinkin was able to write this book because of the oral histories conducted in the 1970s by U.C. Berkeley professor Dr. Robert Allen. Oral histories provide us with access to first-person accounts that get lost in official government documents or news media coverage of events. Working with your local veteran’s organizations and via local personal networks, have your students conduct interviews with veterans living in your area. You might want to organize students in small groups by specific military conflict, so that they can prepare questions suited to the period of U.S. history in which the veterans served. Students can conduct interviews in small groups, pairs, or individually, using audio or video material. Have students create a multimedia presentation on their interview that includes primary and secondary source material and the voice of the veteran. What are the commonalities in the experiences of military members across the interviews? What are the differences that emerge? Conclude by sharing these portraits with veterans; host a viewing session and invite veterans, families, and community members.
Emotional Impact of Port Chicago.  Before or after reading the book, or both before and after, have students watch the 10 minute video, “Into Forgetfulness,” about the Port Chicago disaster, available on the Park Service site and the Friends of the Port Chicago Memorial site. The video covers much of the same information as the book does. Have students discuss the ways in which the video, like the book, stirs an emotional response. How does the video do that effectively? How does the book?
Writing Nonfiction: Setting the Stage. Once you have completed the book, have students return to chapter one. Why did Sheinkin choose to start this book by telling the story of Mess Attendant Dorie Miller during the bombing of Pearl Harbor? How does that impact and ground the reader? How does it preview the content of the book? Have students read the opening chapters of other award-winning nonfiction writers for children and young adults. Develop a list of “opening moves” that they see the authors using. Have students research and write nonfiction of their own on a topic of their choice or one connected to your curriculum standards in social studies, science, or English; make sure they apply one of the identified “opening moves.”
Expanding the Context. In the process of telling the story of the Port Chicago fifty, Sheinkin also tells the story of the emerging Civil Rights Movement and some of the key players and/or events that led up to some of the more well-known turning points in the Civil Rights Movement. For example, throughout the book, Marshall is referred to as a talented lawyer working for the National Association for the Advanced of Colored People (NAACP). Marshall appeals the Port Chicago mutiny conviction, but loses the case. But what cases did Marshall win? What did he go on to do? What was the impact of Brown vs. the Board of Education? What connections can students make between the actions of Lieutenant Jack Robinson, who refused to move to the back of the bus at Fort Hood just ten days before the Port Chicago explosion, and first basemen Jackie Robinson who joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947? What ultimately led Truman to desegregate the military years before the United States was desegregated? Place students in small groups to research these important people and events, and have students decide how best to share their research.
Critical Literacy
Mainstream Media and Historical Understanding. On page 46, Sheinkin writes that stories about the mistreatment, even murder, of African Americans in the segregated military did not make it into mainstream media at the time, but black newspapers did report on these events. What events are unfolding right now in your community, within the United States, or around the world that are not being covered by mainstream media? Put students in small groups, and have each group compare and contrast the coverage of a different news story by a range of local news outlets, including newspapers, radio, and television stations. What gets covered in some but not all? How does the coverage differ? Students can co-author their analysis in a genre that makes the most sense to them (oral presentation, shared writing, multimedia presentation). 
Missing Pieces. Before reading the book, have students read the summary of the disaster on the History Channel. Use this short article to have students anticipate what details and perspectives might be in the book. When students have completed the book, have them return to this short text. What important details are included? What are excluded? Why does this article fail to mention the connection between the Port Chicago fifty and the desegregation of the military? How does that missing information shape and deepened someone’s understanding of the impact of this event? If you only read this one source, what would you understand about the impact of the Port Chicago fifty? Next, have students read the UNC article. How does the perspective change again? What is included that was left out of the History Channel article? Using their knowledge gained from reading the book, have students discuss or write, formally or informally, about what someone can learn about the event from reading the two articles, and how the Sheinkin’s book differs in its perspective and approach.
More Missing Pieces. The Port Chicago 50focuses on the fifty men who were ultimately put on trial by the U.S. Navy and convicted as mutineers. It was the largest mutiny trial in the history of the navy. However, when the explosion took place on July 17, 1944, 320 servicemen were killed. Who were they? Who were their families? How did the U.S. Navy compensate the families of the dead African American servicemen? This is an extra-challenging research project that may not be completed quickly. But for interested and engaged students who up for the challenge, have them research naval records to get the names of the dead. Using online resources, including, perhaps, an subscription available through your local public library system, try to track down surviving relatives of those servicemen. 
Overturn the Conviction! The Port Chicago fifty are still considered convicted mutineers according to the U.S. Navy.  After reading the book, do your students believe that this is appropriate? Next, have students examine the Port Chicago Memorial website, to get a sense of the legacy of the disaster in its fullest sense – from the people who keep the memory alive. Discuss Freddie Meeks’s decision, to seek a presidential pardon, which was issued to him by President Clinton in 1999. In the end, all of the Port Chicago fifty are dead, and as Sheinkin reminds us, “[a]ll fifty remain convinced mutineers.” If your students feel so moved, have them write persuasive letters to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, arguing that he ignore the 1994 review of the Port Chicago trial, and overturn their convictions posthumously. 
Further Explorations
Friends of the Port Chicago Memorial
Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Park Site
“Port Chicago Disaster,” History Channel
“Remembering the Port Chicago Mutiny,” UNC Special Collections
Teen Reads Interview with Steve Sheinkin, January 2014
Courage has No Color Entry, The Classroom Bookshelf
Fleishman, J. (2007). Black and white airmen: Their true history.Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Nathan, A. (2002). Yankee Doodle gals: Women pilots of World War II. Washington, DC: National Geographic.
Stone, T. (2013). Courage has no color. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
Mary Ann Cappiello About Mary Ann Cappiello

Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets (2013) and Teaching to Complexity (2015) and Text Sets in Action: Pathways Through Content Area Literacy (Stenhouse, 2021). She has been a guest on public radio and a consultant to public television. From 2015-2018, Mary Ann was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K-8) Committee, serving two years as chair.