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Storytelling Across Centuries: NPS at 100
By Aleta George
About two hours after sunset on July 17, 1944, a huge explosion ripped through the night at Port Chicago on Suisun Bay. A chain reaction blew up the pier and two ships, one fully loaded with munitions and the other waiting to be loaded with explosives from railcars on the pier. The blast created a debris-filled cloud that shot 12,000 feet into the air, broke windows in San Francisco, and reverberated to Nevada. It killed 320 men, two-thirds of whom were African Americans who had enlisted to serve in battle, but instead had been segregated into menial jobs such as munitions loaders.
Less than a month after the explosion, the U.S. Navy reassigned the survivors to Mare Island to load munitions. When 258 sailors resisted due to safety concerns, the Navy threatened death by firing squad, and all but 50 returned to work. The Port Chicago 50 who refused were tried as mutineers and sentenced to prison, where they sat until the end of the war.
The story of this explosion and its aftermath is told at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine, a National Memorial site owned and managed by the National Park Service (NPS). While NPS is better known for managing natural wonders such as Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, the agency does much more. Its sites tell great American stories, and we in the Bay Area are lucky to have more than a dozen NPS destinations rich in history and culture.
A Wider Lens
As NPS celebrates its centennial on August 25, it is already widening the lens of which stories to tell for the next 100 years. The Muir Woods National Monument in Mill Valley serves as one example of how the agency is approaching interpretation differently.
Muir Woods has a great origin story. In 1905, William Kent and his wife purchased a swath of sequoia sempervirens, a portion of which is now Muir Woods. When a private water company tried to grab it three years later, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed the property America’s seventh National Monument, and at Kent’s request, named it in honor of John Muir. Kent and others felt that protected sites such as Muir Woods, Yellowstone, and Yosemite needed to be managed by a federal agency, so in 1916 Congressman Kent and Senator Reed Smoot of Utah introduced the Organic Act, the bill that established the National Park Service.
The story doesn’t stop there. “The vision that Kent and Muir had was formative in how we think about National Park lands, wild lands set apart from daily lives. It was an invitation to extraordinary places, but it was also a barrier to reaching a full diversity of American people,” said Emily Levine, a supervisory park ranger at Muir Woods. She says there has been an intentional shift to bring parks to the people and to treat National Parks as civic forums where lectures have morphed into dialogues, and where topics range from history to environmental justice to climate change.
“The National Park Service has made quite an effort to make [stories] relevant to a new generation and a new urban demographic in the Bay Area and the U.S.,” said Paul Scolari, chief of cultural resources of NPS sites in the East Bay. “Port Chicago Naval Magazine and Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front are good examples of where the Park Service is addressing stories that were not addressed in the first century. These are consciously urban parks, in proximity and available to people who may never visit a National Park that is hundreds of miles away,” he added.
The Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond is located where the Kaiser Shipyards produced Liberty and Victory ships at a faster clip and for less money than did other wartime shipyards. The efficient workforce included women who learned to weld and rivet while the men who traditionally held those jobs were at war. The can-do attitude of these women, represented by the iconic image of Rosie the Riveter, continues to inspire girls today through stories told at the park, and through a summer camp run by the nonprofit Rosie the Riveter Trust. The program introduces middle-school teenage girls to vocational training and inspires self-confidence.
A New Kind of Theater
A shift in American storytelling itself grew out of Tao House in Danville, an artistic sanctuary built by Eugene O’Neill and his third wife Carlotta Monterey O’Neill. Today, Tao House is part of the Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site.
Upon arrival in California prior to the outbreak of WWII, O’Neill was already a popular and prize-winning playwright, and wanted to take the craft further. With his father an actor, O’Neill had grown up in the wings of American theater, which didn’t have much of an identity other than spectacle and entertainment, said Chad Deverman, education coordinator for the O’Neill Studio Retreat, a free summer master class for teens offered by the Eugene O’Neill Foundation. “O’Neill wanted to write stories about real people who struggled. His goal was to get the audience talking about life,” explained Deverman.
As the theater of war played out in Europe and the Pacific, O’Neill anchored himself to his desk to write plays that would change the tone and direction of theater. With Mount Diablo framed in his west-facing window, O’Neill wrote The Iceman Cometh, Moon for the Misbegotten, and Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
“O’Neill’s story is relevant to kids today because he changed the art form,” said Deverman. “We try to instill confidence in the teens so that they know they can change the form of theater, too. We need new voices. We need new forms, and these kids are a large part of that.”
The Stories Continue
O’Neill left Tao House due to poor health and was living at the Huntington Hotel in San Francisco when Port Chicago exploded. As the stories of the explosion emerged, he would have related to the workers. O’Neill had been a seaman in his youth, and was a member of the Marine Transport Workers Industrial Union.
At the end of the war, O’Neill left the West Coast. He never wrote another play, but he did shake up American theater. Female workers abdicated their newfound skills and jobs to the men returning from war, but their contributions to the war effort led to the Women’s Rights Movement. The fight of the Port Chicago 50, who were pardoned (but not exonerated) and put on ships after the war to finish their enlistment, contributed to the Civil Rights Movement.
Stories impact other stories. A crack in John Muir’s house at the John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez is said to have formed after the Port Chicago blast. A play called N, written by Adrienne Earle Pender at a Tao House fellowship last year, explores the relationship between O’Neill and Charles S. Gilpin, the first black actor to play the lead role in O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones. The nonprofit organization Friends of Port Chicago has asked President Obama to exonerate the Port Chicago 50. And finally, children — whose lives are more complex and challenging than Muir, Kent, or Roosevelt ever could have imagined — crane their necks to see the tops of thousand-year-old redwood trees in a quiet and protected forest.
Aleta George covers open space for the Monitor.