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California and the Nation

created Feb 25, 2016 01:50 PM

A U.S. History Lesson

by Emily Richards, Program Coordinator, UC Berkeley History-Social Science Project

When talking with 8th and 11th grade US history teachers, they often comment that students regularly ask, “But what was happening in California?” With the exception of the 4th grade standards; California’s United States History standards, taught in 5th, 8th, and 11th grade, are heavily focused on a traditional narrative that originates on the eastern seaboard of what became the United States and moved west as the nation gained control of new territories. Reorienting this narrative to emphasize more of what was occurring in the West all along requires teachers to go beyond what they can find in their textbooks.

The UC Berkeley History-Social Science Project has sought to assist teachers develop resources for teaching about the West with two distinct programs; a one week NEH Landmarks institute that explored the WWII Home Front from a western lens, and a one day program developed in partnership with UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. Migration, Mobilization, and Militarization: The Bay Area and the World War II Home Front brought 76 teachers from across the nation to explore the Bay Area’s significance within larger historical narratives. Teachers who had never heard of Richmond, California came to understand its outsized significance to the war effort through the construction of supply ships in the Kaiser yards. The significance of a more personal experience of internment was revealed through the stories Karen Korematsu shared of her dad and through a documentary on the history of nursery owners of Japanese descent who were forced to abandon their small businesses during the war. For the few local teachers who were invited to attend, the experience was just as powerful, because it helped them deepen their understanding of answers to the “What was happening in California?” question. As a result of his own learning experience, one local teacher organized a field trip for his students, who left the day better informed and, even, proud. We are excited to reprise this effort during the summer of 2016.

Inspired by this learning experience, and strengthened through a growing partnership with the archivists at The Bancroft Library, we hosted fifteen area teachers for a one day workshop – “California and the Nation.” The teachers were introduced to the archival resources of the university and the digitized sources housed on Calisphere and charged with developing a lesson that used a moment in California history as a means of exploring either the nation-wide implications of that event or revealing or reorienting larger national trends. To model this process, we charged one of our teacher leaders with developing a lesson on the Port Chicago Mutiny. We saw this moment as a piece of local history, which would allow students to understand the broader notion of the Double Victory campaign during World War II that advocated for increased protection of the rights of African Americans. The teachers who participated in our pilot workshop used this lesson as an exemplar to reference in the creation of their own lesson focusing on the question, “What is happening in California?” 

Exploring Double Victory through the Explosion at Port Chicago

H-SS Standards
11.7 Students Analyze America’s participation in World War II
11.7.5 Discuss the constitutional issues and impact of events on the U.S. home front, including . . . the roles and growing political demands of African Americans.

Curricular Context:

In most high school history classrooms, teachers discuss the Double Victory campaign in order to explore the experience of African Americans during World War II. The publicity campaign, which was launched by the Pittsburgh Courier, highlighted the contradiction that existed between fighting for democracy abroad while experiencing Jim Crow at home. The explosion at Port Chicago and subsequent work stoppage at Mare Island, provides a California example in which students can explore discriminatory practices within the armed forces and the actions African Americans took to challenge them.

Focus Question: Why did so many African American sailors die in the Port Chicago explosion?


Photographs from Port Chicago (Primary Source)

Excerpts from sailors assigned to Port Chicago (Primary Source)

Robert Allen, The Port Chicago Mutiny (Secondary Source)

Steve Sheinken, The Port Chicago Mutiny (Young Adult Non-Fiction) 

Lesson Overview:

While many people in the Bay Area have heard of the Port Chicago explosion, few can explain the circumstances surrounding the explosion and subsequent work refusal by sailors. Most people fail to remember who died and what happened after the explosion. 

Through this case study, students have the opportunity to explore the:

1) Racially-influenced assignment of work duties in the armed forces

2) Dangerous nature of racially-assigned work assignments as exemplified by the munitions explosion at Port Chicago in Concord

3) Organized resistance by black Americans illustrated through the decision by large numbers of black servicemen to refuse to load munitions following the explosion

1) Difficulty in attaining official redress demonstrated through the subsequent trial, where the men who refused to work, when reassigned to Mare Island, were convicted of mutiny.

Each segment of the lesson, from exploring unequal working conditions to the mutiny conviction, incorporates compelling source material as evidence for students to use in their investigation of the events. Additionally, in each lesson, a graphic organizer and literacy strategy help to maximize understanding of the excerpted source and provide a structured connection to the larger unit question and theme (see concept map and the full lesson).


Image: US Navy 1944. Courtesy of the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial.



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