Wednesday, March 14, 2012

What it takes to visit the Port Chicago site

A couple of weekends ago we drove out to the Delta with mainly a nature walk in mind, and Port Chicago was on the way. Thought we'd stop by and see it.

Last time we went looking for the Port Chicago site was maybe fifteen years ago. Back then there was nothing at all in the way of signage mentioning the site of the wartime disaster that killed 320 people. In recent years the Port Chicago story has been told more widely: how unsafe conditions at the naval munitions center there set off an explosion that killed mostly African Americans; how it precipitated a shameful "mutiny" trial of surviving African American stevedores who refused an order to resume the same work as before, and how it contributed to the desegregation of the U.S. military.

Now there's reportedly a national memorial at the site. It was dedicated in July 2010. So we kind of thought we'd be able to see a plaque or a visitors' center or something. Guess not.

What there turned out to be, for the casually passing public, was a sign with a phone number to call. So, eh, we decided we didn't want to put the docent or ranger or whoever to any trouble, and we didn't want to spend the whole afternoon. Just, being in the neighborhood, would have liked to see what was there, would have liked to stand on the site for a moment to pay respects. We shrugged and turned around and went off and did some birdwatching. I wonder how many other casually interested visitors have similarly been discouraged away without leaving any record that they would have liked to see the place.

It's a week and a half later, and I only just got around to looking up that phone number. It goes to a National Park Service office. A related Park Service Web site says that in order to take a tour of the site you not only have to make a reservation, you have to apply for clearance two weeks in advance, and be approved. Weird. (To its credit, the Park Service site links to a New York Times article that discusses the access issue.)

You would think that a way could be found to make a national memorial reachable by members of the general public without special permission. But then as geographer Kenneth Foote points out so well in his book Shadowed Ground, people are rarely eager to make public access easy or obvious at the scene of a tragic story that includes an element of shame.

I pay attention to this stuff because of my long-term book project about the Tule Lake Segregation Center site in far northeastern California, where some 18,000 Japanese American civilians were imprisoned during the war. Until the 2008 grant of National Monument status there was acted on in 2009, the only public labeled memorial at Tule Lake was a plaque by the side of the road. Even now the camp's visitor center is an area in the museum at the fairgrounds headquarters several miles from the actual incarceration site. Sheesh, though, at least the Tule Lake plaque can be reached from the road, and when you're standing at the plaque you can see buildings that were important in the camp's history, and I think if you go to the fairgrounds headquarters, anyway in summertime, a ranger will drive out and show you around the National Monument property at the core of the old camp site.

Seeing the difference at Port Chicago is a reminder that it took a lot of activist work to make the Tule Lake site as accessible as it is.

There's a petition around to "improve and enhance" the Port Chicago memorial. Seems like a good idea.

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