California Educator

December / January 2017

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him realize a few things about being a young African American male in America today. "I learned that I come from a strong heritage, and that despite segregation and discrimination, still we rise," he says. "e way Afri- can Americans were treated in the military then was inhumane and unjust. It showed the ugly side of the military. But the fact that it is being talked about now shows we can learn from those mistakes." Despite the positive takeaways, learning about Port Chicago was sobering. It remains sobering for Soskin as well. She remembers well the day of July 17, 1944. Since there were no recreational options for African Americans in the segregated military, she and her then-husband, Mel Reid, had opened their apartment in Berkeley that Saturday to entertain "colored" ser- vicemen on their weekend leave. at evening, after a number of the young men bid their goodbyes and returned to Port Chicago, two ships loaded with munitions for the Pacific theater blew up, killing 320 military and civilians. Of those, 200 were African American servicemen, including the young men who had been at Soskin's apartment earlier that day. Protest and a fight for exoneration A month later, 50 men — called the " Por t Chica go 50" — l ed a prot est over unsafe conditions and lack of on-the-job training for their mission. For their action, they were convicted of mutiny and sentenced to 15 years in prison and hard labor, as well as a dishonorable discharge. Forty-seven of the 50 were released in January 1946; the remaining three served additional months in prison. In 1999, one of the men accepted a pardon from President Bill Clinton; the others refused, insisting on full exoneration. Today, families and descendants are still fighting for posthumous exoneration for the Port Chicago 50. ough Soskin has been a lifelong witness to racial discrimina- tion, she recognizes that these periods usher in rapid change as well. e tragic incident at Port Chicago, for example, may have hastened the executive order by President Harry S. Truman on July 26, 1948, to fully integrate what had been a segregated military. e arrival of Soskin's family in Oakland predates the great migra- tion of African Americans who came to the West Coast during the war for jobs in the military and naval shipyards. She observed that the dramatic increase of the black population during that time An African American Women's Army Corps unit during World War II. Photo courtesy National Archives " Some change is immediate, some takes decades, some is gen- erational. I've lived long enough to learn that change comes in cycles." – BETTY SOSKIN, U.S. PARK RANGER AND UNION VETERAN meant that racial segregation arrived here as well. "But it was also a period when we fought back, just as we have resisted discrimination ever since slavery," Soskin says. "ese periods of chaos became opportunities to redefine our democracy." 57 D E C E M B E R 2 017 / J A N U A R Y 2 018 Sign Up for the Field Trip Fighting for the Right to Fight: African Amer- ican Experiences in WWII is a 50-minute program produced by the National WWII Museum that will be live-streamed Feb. 22, 2018. It explores how African Americans pursued a double victory during the war, one over the enemy abroad and the other over discrimination at home. Stories of struggle, setbacks, triumphs and heroism of brave individuals who changed history come to light as student reporters examine artifacts from the museum and travel to California to learn about the injus- tices in a segregated military at the site of the deadliest munitions disaster during the war. The "electronic field trip" — which can be streamed directly into your classroom — includes both live and recorded segments. Your students will come away with a new understanding of how the pursuit for both victory and equality shaped the story of World War II and transformed the United States for decades to come. There are two showings on Thursday, Feb. 22: at 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. Pacific Time. The New Orleans-based National WWII Museum previously hosted two other elec- tronic field trips, one about Pearl Harbor and one about how students helped win the war. Both are on the museum's website. More information and registration are at

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