Race and Tragedy on the Home Front: The Forgotten Port Chicago Disaster

Guiding Question:

How was World War II a war fought both on the battlefield and at home?


Through an inquiry-based media literacy activity, students will uncover what happened at Port Chicago on July 17, 1944. Using primary and secondary sources, students will compare the version of events from the official government report and other sources. Students will conclude the lesson by writing an op-ed or a letter to an elected official about the Port Chicago 50.


Historical Context

Many history classes focus on the numerous challenges and changes on the homefront during World War II. For African Americans, World War II was a war fought not only against fascism abroad, but also against racism at home. Port Chicago, California, was the site of the worst disaster on the homefront and it also played an extremely important role in the war in the Pacific. At Port Chicago, munitions were loaded onto ships, primarily by poorly trained African-American soldiers in a segregated military. On July 17, 1944, an explosion occurred at Port Chicago that killed 320 sailors and civilians. The overwhelming majority of victims at Port Chicago were African Americans. The disaster on July 17, 1944, not only exposed injustices within American society, but also sparked resistance and reforms within the U.S. military.


At the conclusion of this lesson, students will be able to

  • Analyze how bias, context, and other factors contribute to the way media reports on events;
  • Describe the experiences of African Americans on the homefront and in the U.S. military; and
  • Evaluate how various primary and secondary sources can provide contradictory information.

Standards Connections

Connections to Common Core
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.6 Evaluate authors' differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors' claims, reasoning, and evidence.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.9 Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

Connections to C3 Framework
D2.His.1.9-12. Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.
D2.His.5.9-12. Analyze how historical contexts shaped and continue to shape people’s perspectives.
D2.His.8.9-12. Analyze how current interpretations of the past are limited by the extent to which available historical sources represent perspectives of people at the time.
D2.His.10.9-12. Detect possible limitations in various kinds of historical evidence and differing secondary interpretations.
D2.His.14.9-12. Analyze multiple and complex causes and effects of events in the past.


Lesson Preparation


Activity One: Historical Inquiry (45 minutes)

  • Divide students into groups of three to four students each.
  • Give each group a folder containing the Port Chicago Disaster Photograph Collection.
    • Teacher Tip: The photographs are intentionally not labeled. Do not tell students any information about the event.
  • Ask students to work as detectives to try to figure out what happened.
    • Teacher Tip: You may also choose to use any of the three short film clips from the Internet Archive to to preview the Port Chicago Disaster.
  • Distribute the What Happened? Graphic Organizer to each student and ask students to complete Part One. Ask students to identify what they believe happened in the images. Ask questions to help stimulate discussion.
    • Do you think this image is from a battle in Europe?
    • Could this be a image from a battle in the Pacific theater?
    • Ask groups to share their theories about what happened before continuing.
  • Provide each group with a second folder with images from the African American Stevedores Photograph Collection. Ask students to complete the Part Two of the What Happened? Graphic Organizer. Ask students to identify what they believe is happening in the images.
    • Teacher Tip: A careful examination of the images reveal that the work done at Port Chicago was predominantly done by African-American sailors. Push students to discover this fact during their discussion.
    • Ask groups to share what they think is happening in the images.
  • Use the images from the activity to provide context for the next lesson. Following Activity One students should have a basic understanding of the following facts:
    • Port Chicago was a naval base in Northern California, north of San Francisco.
    • A terrible explosion occurred. It was the worst homefront disaster of World War II.
    • African-American sailors did the majority of the work at Port Chicago. All commissioned officers were white, and only only a few non-commissioned officers were African Americans.
    • These men lived and worked in a segregated society and a segregated military.
    • African Americans were the overwhelming majority of the victims (202 of 320 killed) at Port Chicago. According to the Naval History and Heritage Command, 15% of all African-Americans casualties in World War II were killed at Port Chicago (Source: Michael Clodfelter, Warfare and Armed Conflicts – A Statistical Reference to Casualty and Other Figures, 1500–2000. 2nd Ed. 2002).

Activity Two: What Caused the Port Chicago Explosion? (45 minutes)

Activity Three: Debrief (15 minutes)

  • Arrange student desks into a circle. Assign one student to record who contributes (each student gets points based upon their contributions during the socratic seminar) and one student to help facilitate the conversation. Students should share evidence from the sources and various activities to support their conclusions. Ask students,
    • What do you think really happened at Port Chicago?
    • How do these findings compare with the conclusions reached after reading the government report and mainstream newspapers?
    • Why do you think the sources are inconsistent?
    • Who was at fault for the Port Chicago disaster?
  • Review that students have a basic understanding of the following facts:
    • Black sailors were poorly trained, safety procedures were minimal at Port Chicago, and the work was extremely dangerous.
    • Some black stevedores working at Port Chicago refused to return to work until safety concerns were addressed. These men were arrested for mutiny.

Assessment Materials

  • Show students the video clip from California Senator Steve Glazer requesting a presidential pardon of those imprisoned for the mutiny.
  • Distribute copies of the Port Chicago Response Instructions and Rubric to each student.
  • Direct students to write an op-ed or a letter to an elected official discussing whether they believe it would be appropriate for the current president to pardon those who refused to load ammunition following the Port Chicago explosion.
  • The letter can be scored using the Port Chicago Responses Rubric.

Methods for Extension


  • Teachers can adapt the lesson to younger learners by providing them fewer images to analyze in Activity One.
  • Teachers can adapt the lesson to English Language Learners by providing academic vocabulary for the text and shortening the required reading. Teachers can also choose to use videos clips and audio oral history interviews in lieu of primary source text.
  • Teachers can group students in mixed ability groups. Since the lesson requires different skills (reading, primary sources analysis, whole class discussion, photograph analysis) students would benefit from working in heterogeneous ability groups. Mixed ability grouping would allow students to assist one another on the various tasks.


Return to Activity

Primary Sources

Secondary Sources

Other Sources