Concord EBRPD park naming honors Civil Rights pioneer Thurgood Marshall

Concord EBRPD park naming honors Civil Rights pioneer Thurgood Marshall
East Bay Regional Park District will be utilizing the World War II era mini bunkers in the newly named Thurgood Marshall Regional Park for public art displays and other uses in the 2,540-acre park that is projected to open its first areas for public use within the next two to three years. (Artist rendering courtesy EBRPD)
Concord EBRPD park naming honors Civil Rights pioneer Thurgood Marshall
Thurgood Marshall

CONCORD, CA — The two-decades long saga of the Concord Naval Weapons Station conversion has taken more twists and turns than a Hollywood movie and maybe none more surprising than the June 1 unanimous vote by the East Bay Regional Park District Board of Directors to name the 2,540-acre park in honor of Civil Rights pioneer and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Thurgood Marshall Regional Park – Home of the Port Chicago 50” was selected as the permanent name of the park, which had the working title of “Concord Hills Regional Park” since at least 2013.

The land was officially turned over to the EBRPD from the Navy/National Park Service in 2019 and the expectation is that part of the site south of Bailey Rd. will open in the next two to three years. Eventually the park will include over 22 miles of trails, camping facilities and picnic areas.

One year ago, the Concord City Council supported Concord Hills Regional Park as the name after reviewing community surveys, which always had Concord Hills Regional Park as the top choice. There was also always support for a name to honor Native Americans, others mentioned recognizing the Town of Port Chicago and there were also suggestions to incorporate the land’s military history in the name.

At its final May meeting the Concord City Council voted 5-0 to endorse the Park District’s name choice. Councilman Edi Birsan unsuccessfully suggested the Council request Concord be incorporated in the name.

A significant national figure, Thurgood Marshall has a direct connection with the Concord Naval Weapons Station site.

During World War II with a segregated military, Black sailors were assigned the dangerous task of loading munitions at Port Chicago Naval Magazine on the waterfront. It was a 24 hour a day operation with limited safety precautions under the direction of White officers.

320 killed in blast

On July 17, 1944, two vessels filled with ammunition exploded killing 320 men –mostly Black teenagers—and injuring 390 others. The explosion blew out windows as far away as San Francisco and accounted for one quarter of all African American deaths in the war.

Soon after the explosion, Black sailors were ordered to return to work loading munitions. Fifty men who refused the assignment were charged with mutiny and eventually dishonorably discharged. They became known as the Port Chicago 50. Marshall was then lead counsel of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and accepted the Port Chicago 50’s request to observe their court martial trial.

The national attention the disaster and treatment of the Black sailors drew eventually led to President Harry Truman in 1948 signing Executive Order 9981 desegregating the military and was a precursor of the civil rights movement.

The CNWS continued to operate as a base through the Korean and Vietnam wars and the Cold War until it was placed in a reduced operational capacity in 1999. There were many anti-war protests there during the Vietnam era.

First Black on highest court

Marshall went on to become the first African American appointed to the Supreme Court in 1967, serving until 1991. He was nominated by President Lyndon Johnson and retired during George H. W. Bush’s presidency. Marshall died in 1993 at the age of 84.

President Barack Obama established the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial in 2009.

The drive to attach Marshall’s name to the Concord park site began this year among park district employees. In her May 11 staff report to the EBRPD board executive committee, new general manager Sabrina Landreth said, “Staff fully support the name ‘Thurgood Marshall Regional Park – Home of the Port Chicago 50’ as a name that celebrates African American history, honors the history of the site and allows for deeper exploration of themes of equality, safe working conditions, social justice and protest.”

The name was endorsed by the District’s Black Employee Collective, numerous NAACP chapters and local elected officials Congressman Mark DeSaulnier, Assemblyman Tim Grayson and State Sen. Steve Glazer.

“The new Thurgood Marshall Regional Park – Home of the Port Chicago 50 park name has both historical and representational significance,” said DeSaulnier. “As a defender of the Port Chicago 50 in their historic fight against discrimination and wrongful conviction, Thurgood Marshall played an important role in their story. The trial, and Marshall’s role in it, helped to play a role in the desegregation of the Armed Forces. As the first African American Supreme Court justice, Marshall is more than deserving of this honor.”

The local park, the 73rd in the largest regional park system in America, will feature a visitor center jointly operated with the National Park Service offering information about the 1944 Port Chicago explosion and its aftermath. This is the first regional park in Contra Costa County named after an African American.

CNWS development status

Development of the other half of the CNWS property on the land closest to the rest of Concord with housing, retail, office and parks has been on hold after master developer Lennar Concord LLC dropped out last year in a dispute over the city’s Concord First policy, which requires 40 percent of construction labor be local hires and payment of prevailing wage on all construction.

Director of Community Reuse Planning Guy Bjerke expects to have multiple submissions to the city’s request for master developer qualifications due June 18. Interviews and review of applicants will take place this summer. Council expects to wrap up the process and finalize an Exclusive Negotiating Agreement by Sept. 23.

Jay Bedecarré
Jay Bedecarré
Sports and Schools Editor at The Concord Clayton Pioneer | | Website

Jay Bedecarré is a long-time resident and writer in Concord and Clayton. He began his newspaper writing career while still a senior at Mt. Diablo High School and he has been part of The Pioneer since its inception in 2003. Jay also operates Bay Area Festivals, presenting events around the San Francisco Bay Area including Bay Area KidFest annually in Downtown Concord.