By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
The City of Richmond has spent the past several years working hard to address and try to solve its problem of an epidemic of violent deaths, and to convince the world that there are other things about the bayfront city that should be highlighted.
But this coming Tuesday evening, February 23rd, Richmond takes a step in the opposite direction when it is expected to take the first steps in shining a spotlight on a violent incident in its not-so-recent past.
That’s when the Richmond City Council will consider creating a memorial to 8 African-American dock workers who died in a horrific Richmond tragedy in the middle of the World War II homefront effort and then laid forgotten and un-honored for the next 72 years.
At the same time, Richmond hopes to shine a new historical spotlight on the largely unknown story of the African-American civilian men who worked at jobs—often dangerous, sometimes fatal—during the war years to support both their families and the American war effort.
The genesis of this effort began in 2010 when one of Richmond’s most famous citizens—National Park Ranger Betty Reid Soskin—was looking at a long-familiar picture of eight caskets from what she thought was the 1944 funeral services in what was then the “Negro” section of the segregated National Cemetery in San Bruno for 8 of the more than 200 African-American sailors who died in the munitions ship explosion at Port Chicago in July of that year.
“I felt an involuntary sharp intake of breath,” Soskin wrote in her personal blog at the time. Although she had seen the photograph many times, she said that she had “never noticed it before [and the] impact was almost painful. Though this was a solemn military burial rite … the caskets were not flag draped.”
Soskin set out to discover why those 8 Black Navy sailors might have been so dishonored. Months of historical detective work turned up the discovery that there had been no dishonor, because the remains in the casket were not Navy sailors at all.
Instead, they were the remains of 8 civilian African American shipyard workers, one of them only 17 years old, who died in a dormitory fire at the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond six months before the Port Chicago tragedy.
A story in the Oakland Tribune at the time reported that “trapped in their bedrooms, at least 8 shipyard workers were burned to death today in a fire that broke out explosively, and destroyed a two-story wooden frame dormitory near Kaiser shipyard 3.” Calling the dormitories a “firetrap,” the story continued that “when the firemen attempted to access a water supply…they discovered that the corner fire hydrant was rusted out, so that none was available to fight the flames. It only took a few minutes for the entire structure to burn to the ground.”
20 other workers were injured in the blaze.
In the months since they identified the true source of the funeral photograph, Soskin tried unsuccessfully to track down relatives of the 8 men who died in the fire. In addition, she could locate no-one living in the Richmond area at the time who even remembered the fire. It was if the 8 men died, were buried, and then were simply swallowed up by the earth.
The 1944 dormitory fire highlighted the fact that while World War II stories almost always focus on the sacrifice of the soldiers fighting overseas, there were actually close to 38,000 casualties among civilians working on the war effort on American soil during those years, some 7,500 more than Americans who were killed on the battlefront.
The site where the Kaiser dormitory burned is now a collection of warehouses at South 11th Street and Potrero in Richmond, less than a mile from where the National Park Service has set up the Rosie The Riveter National Park to honor the work of civilians in the homefront war effort during the World War II years. But no memorial currently marks the spot where the 8 Richmond dockyard workers lived and died. City of Richmond officials are hoping that their proposal for a memorial to the 8 Kaiser dormitory deaths on that site will start the process of correcting that long-overdue recognition.