Dr. Robert Allen’s Port Chicago and Civil Rights Archive and Oral History Collection

By Julie Musson and Lisa Monhoff

This July marks the 75th Anniversary of the Port Chicago Naval Magazine disaster, a massive explosion that resulted in the largest loss of life on the U.S. mainland during WWII. The explosion happened while African-American sailors were loading a munitions ship in the Suisun Bay. Munitions detonated and two cargo ships exploded killing 320 and injuring 390 sailors and civilians. After the explosion, hundreds of African-American servicemen refused to return to segregated, unfair, and unsafe work conditions and 50 of those sailors held out for better work conditions. In response, the Navy charged the men with mutiny and sentenced them to 15 years of hard labor. The disastrous event at Port Chicago and media coverage of the ensuing mutiny trial was a pivotal moment in the discussions of racial inequality in the U.S. and contributed to desegregation in the Navy beginning in 1946.

In 2016, the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial under the stewardship of the National Park Service acquired the Dr. Robert Allen Port Chicago and Civil Rights Collection. The collections comprised of 35 linear feet of research archives and 34 hours of oral history interview content produced by Dr. Robert L. Allen as the result of over 40 years of primary research, documentation and scholarly works. The work of Dr. Allen to understand and publicize the disaster and the mistreatment of the sailors culminated in the publication of The Port Chicago Mutiny in 1989 and has continued with decades of appeals for official pardons and exoneration for those charged with mutiny. 

The Robert L. Allen papers on Civil Rights consist of correspondence, primary research, writing and teaching materials created by Dr. Allen in his capacity as activist, editor, writer and educator. Dr. Allen’s body of work includes several books written and published about civil rights and labor leaders, including Bay Area activists Lee Brown and C.L. Dellums. He also served as Senior Editor and writer for many years at The Black Scholar, co-founded a small press with Alice Walker called Wild Trees and taught in the Ethnic Studies and African-American Studies programs at the University of California, Berkeley.

In collaboration with the National Park Service, the Bancroft Technical Services processed and digitized the National Park Service’s Dr. Robert Allen Port Chicago papers and the Bancroft’s Robert L. Allen papers on Civil Rights. The Oral History Center digitized and transcribed the Port Chicago Oral History interviews.

Links to the resources are below.

The Bancroft’s Robert L. Allen papers http://www.oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/c8sq966g/ 

NPS Allen (Dr. Robert) Port Chicago Papers http://www.oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/c8f195h3/ 

Oral History Center Port Chicago Interviews http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/libraries/bancroft-library/oral-history-center/projects/poch