by Outdoor Afro Leader Zoë Polk
At Outdoor Afro, we always take the opportunity to turn a day off into a “day out;” that is- a time to join together with our community in nature. This Veterans Day was a particularly unique day out for us because we set our intention to honor the heroes of Port Chicago and all of the African American veterans in our lives. Through a reflective and brisk autumn hike to the summit Mount Wanda on John Muir Historic Site, we valued our journey together just as much as the historic overlook offered at the destination.
Before we began our hike, we gathered in a gratitude circle and went around calling out the individuals in history and in our families who served in the U.S. Armed Forces. We learned that some of us descended from generations of military veterans. We were also honored when members shared about their own service in the armed forces. And Outdoor Afros reflected on veterans in African American history, including the Buffalo Soldiers, the Tuskegee Airman, and the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry of the Civil War. By speaking these names, we remembered that we are connected by more than just our collective love of nature.
On the way to the top we used all five of our senses to fully experience all that the trail had to offer. All around us we saw beautiful views of fall foliage and dried grass which reminded us why California is called the Golden State. We heard the sounds of Turkey Vultures and Steller’s Jay. When we breathed deeply through our noses, we took in the savory scent of California Bay Trees. With each step in our Keens on the dusty trail and every encouraging hand on the shoulder, we used our sense of touch to make our way up a heart pumping ascent. When we needed that extra burst of energy, we snacked on clif bars, for a delicious taste of chocolate peanut butter, blueberry crisp, and mojo trail mix, washing them down with cool water from our Klean Kanteens.
When we arrived at the summit, we looked out at the Suisun Bay for a glimpse of the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial. There we paused again to honor the African American navy men of the Port Chicago explosion.
Reading from The Port Chicago Mutiny by Robert Allen, we learned that during World War II, Port Chicago was a segregated naval munitions base. Black Navy men were required to load ammunition onto ships bound for the South Pacific under the watch of their white officers which was an incredibly dangerous and physically challenging task. On July 17, 1944, an explosion rocked the base, killing 320 men 202 of whom were black ammunition loaders. Following the devastating explosion, white officers were given leave time and commended for heroic efforts, whereas 328 of the surviving black enlistees were sent to load ammunition on another ship. When they refused, fifty men were singled out and charged and convicted of mutiny. It was the largest mutiny trial in U.S. naval history.
We also learned that Thurgood Marshall, special counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and future Supreme Court Justice, worked on the public relations campaign and appeal. However, to this day the convictions remain in place.
Now approaching the 70th year anniversary of the explosion, local efforts continue to exonerate these men. Outdoor Afro will keep honoring the heroes of Port Chicago through speaking their names and sharing their story with each other and our youth.
Under the beautiful sunny sky, we made our way back down Mt. Wanda and engaged in conversations about history learned and relearned. And about the role nature can play honoring that history. As one Outdoor Afro remarked, “It’s one thing to hike up a big hill, but its a completely different experience to hike up there and look out on our history.”