banner-optimized_0_0.png
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Regional Interests

New Regional Park at Former Naval Site in Concord Will Be Named for Thurgood Marshall

A new park on the site of the former Concord Naval Weapons Station will be named in honor of Black civil rights attorney and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

The East Bay Regional Park District board of directors voted unanimously on Tuesday to name the site “Thurgood Marshall Regional Park – Home of the Port Chicago 50,” commemorating Marshall’s defense of 50 Black sailors during World War II who were charged and convicted of mutiny for protesting unsafe labor conditions at the port.

“Truly, a historic moment,” board president Dee Rosario said after the 7-0 vote.

The 2,540-acre park will take up a little more than half of the massive redevelopment effort at the 5,046-acre site, which is also expected to include 13,000 units of housing and millions of square feet of commercial space.

A date has not yet been set for the park’s opening.

“In a lot of cases, when we first heard that there was a possibility of using Thurgood Marshall, not a lot of people understood why,” said Concord Mayor Tim McGallian, pointing to the little-known connection between the judge and the site. “It’s actually a lot more culturally significant than people think.”

Nearby Port Chicago was where 320 mostly Black sailors were killed when two ammunition ships exploded on July 17, 1944, a blast strong enough to be felt 20 miles away in San Francisco. Another 390 sailors were wounded.

The dangerous task of loading of weapons was done almost exclusively by Black sailors at the base, and supervised by white commanders. The disaster accounted for approximately a quarter of all African American deaths in World War II, according to a park district report.

While white sailors and officers were allowed to go on leave after the explosion, Black sailors were tasked with cleaning up the disaster. Fifty Black sailors among them were charged with mutiny after they refused to continue loading ships.

Decades before he became the first African American member of the U.S. Supreme Court, Marshall, then lead attorney for the NAACP, represented the men. Although they were ultimately convicted in a military court and sentenced to 15 years in prison, Marshall used the case as a springboard to help end segregation in the military, which became official policy in 1948.

Advocates are still pushing for the sailors to be exonerated.

An aerial view of the former Concord Naval Weapons Station, about half of which will be turned into a new park called “Thurgood Marshall Regional Park – Home of the Port Chicago 50.” (Daniel Schwen/Wikimedia)

“It’s horrifying what happened, and its horrifying that it’s not more broadly known,” East Bay Regional Park District board member Elizabeth Echols said at Tuesday’s meeting. “I think it’s so important to have this name, and have this park, that we can celebrate the courage of these men to protest, really risk their lives, to protest an unjust and racist system.”

The district began the naming process in 2015, gathering suggestions from public workshops and surveys, commemoration events and discussions with local American Indian tribes.

Although the approved name does not have any tribal affiliation, district officials say they intend for the park to still highlight the history of the tribes that have lived here for centuries.

“It’s really important to celebrate a prominent leader, a positive leader, who fought for civil rights for all,” said Brian Holt, the park district’s chief of planning. “And his name, as we’ve seen, just provides an immediate educational opportunity.”

It will also be the first park in Contra Costa County to be named after a Black person, district officials also noted.

U.S. Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Walnut Creek, is additionally requesting $10 million in federal funds to create a visitor center at the park, run in partnership with the National Park Service, that would feature the history of the Port Chicago disaster.

The National Park Service currently manages the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial at a nearby active army base, but the site is not as accessible to the public as the proposed new one would be.

“I think it will be important for us in that visitor center to reexamine all the historical narratives that there are in this land through the filter of social justice,” said park district director Beverly Lane.

This post includes additional reporting from Bay City News’ Tony Hicks.

Copyright 2021 KQED