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The Concord City Council threw its weight behind naming a future park in the former Concord Naval Weapons Station after Thurgood Marshall and the 50 sailors he represented who stood up to racism after the Port Chicago explosion in 1944.

The East Bay Regional Park District will decide to name the park “Thurgood Marshall Regional Park — Home of the Port Chicago 50” at its June 1 board meeting.

The council is the official local reuse authority of the former base, which the U.S. Navy abandoned in 1999. The council last week voted to send a letter to the park district officially backing the name.

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

Before he was an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall represented the 50 African American sailors accused of mutiny following the Port Chicago explosion. (Photo courtesy Library of Congress)

Before becoming a Supreme Court justice, Marshall challenged Navy segregation policies by advocating for 50 African American sailors who refused to load ammunition onto ships in the weeks following the Port Chicago explosion.

Unsafe conditions led to two ships exploding on July 17, 1944, killing 320 men (two-thirds of them African American) and wounding another 390. The blast was powerful enough to be felt as far away as San Francisco.

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

The 50 African American sailors were convicted of mutiny after refusing to go back to loading ammunition at nearby Mare Island in Vallejo in the weeks after the disaster, while white commanders were granted leave. The Black sailors were also tasked with cleaning up the aftermath of the explosion.

They contacted Marshall, then lead counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Marshall sat in on the court martial proceedings and published a series of articles and spoke out against Navy policies. Though all 50 were convicted and sentenced to prison, Marshall’s campaign was widely credited with President Harry Truman’s decision to end segregation in the armed forces in 1948.

U.S. Rep. Mark Desaulnier, D-Walnut Creek, is requesting $10 million in federal funds to build a joint visitor center at the park featuring the history of the Port Chicago disaster.

The city is currently going through the process of finding a master developer for the project. Lennar Five Point was selected as the initial developer in 2016 but pulled out in late 2020 when its negotiating agreement expired after if couldn’t reach consensus with local labor unions.

The city went back to the drawing board and expedited the process and is trying to have a new developer in place by August.