The Richmond City Council meeting on Tuesday will mark Black History Month with what promises to be a poignant presentation by National Park Sevice ranger Betty Reid Soskin on eight men who worked at the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond and died in a fire in a war worker housing dormitory in January of 1944.
While it made headlines at the time, the fire and its victims had been forgotten in the ensuing decades until Soskin was studying a photograph of the time that set off an investigation to uncover a neglected part of the city’s history.
According to a news release:
The genesis of this effort began in 2010 when Rosie The Riveter’s oldest and most famous staff member — National Park Ranger Betty Reid Soskin — was looking over a familiar picture of funeral services in the “Negro” section of the then-segregated National Cemetery in San Bruno of what park officials had long thought were the caskets of eight of the more than 200 African-American sailors who died in the munitions ship explosion at Port Chicago in 1944.”
Although she had seen the photograph many times before, she said that she had “never noticed it before [and the] impact was almost painful. Though this was a solemn military burial rite … the caskets were not flag draped.”
Soskin set out to discover why those eight black Navy sailors might have been so dishonored. Months of historical detective work by Park staff and associates turned up the discovery that there had been no dishonor at all, because the remains in the casket were not Navy sailors at all.
Instead, they were the remains of eight civilian African American shipyard workers, one of them only 17 years old, who died in a dormitory fire at the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond six months before the Port Chicago tragedy.
The site where the Kaiser dormitory burned is now a collection of warehouses at South 11th Street and Potrero in Richmond, less than a mile from the Rosie The Riveter Visitors Center. No marker of what Soskin calls “the awful event” currently marks that spot. Rosie The Riveter Park officials are hoping that their proposal for a memorial to the eight Kaiser dormitory deaths on that site will start the process of both recognizing and honoring the American civilians who gave their lives supporting the war effort in this country.
The presentation is at the top of the agenda for the meeting at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 23 in the council chamber at 440 Civic Center Plaza. The meeting will also be televised on city channel KCRT.
Below are the item on the City Council agenda on Tuesday and Oakland Tribune coverage of the fire.
PRESENTATION FOR BLACK HISTORY MONTH REGARDING THE DORMITORY O FIRE IN RICHMOND, WHICH CLAIMED THE LIVES OF EIGHT AFRICAN-AMERICAN HOME FRONT WORKERS IN RICHMOND DURING WORLD WAR II.
STATEMENT OF THE ISSUE: Black History Month occurs each February as an annual observance for remembrance of important people and events in the history of the African diaspora. This presentation honors the lives of eight African-Americans who were killed in a deadly fire in Richmond during the World War II. RECOMMENDED ACTION: RECEIVE a presentation for Black History Month regarding the Dormitory O Fire in Richmond, which claimed the lives of eight African-American Home Front workers in Richmond during World War II. FINANCIAL IMPACT: There are no financial impacts related to this item. DISCUSSION: National Park Service Ranger Betty Reid Soskin recently uncovered the forgotten story of eight African-American men who worked in the Richmond Kaiser Shipyards and were killed in a devastating dormitory fire. The location of the fire is less than a mile from Dr. Martin Luther King Park on Harbour Way South and Virginia Avenue. Remembering this tragedy is important to Richmond’s history, because it honors the lives of black men and others who answered our nation’s call to service by working on the Home Front.
Oakland Tribune, Jan. 10, 1944:
8 Die, 20 Hurt in Richmond Fire
Firemen Aid in Rescue of 30 as Shipyard
Dormitory Is Razed; Watchman’s
Shots Rouse Sleepers, Coll Fire Engines
RICHMOND, Jan. 10—At least eight Negro shipyard workers were burned to death early today and score of others were injured when fire swept through Dormitory O, a war housing building at South Eleventh Street and Potrero Avenue.
At least 30 others were saved from death or injury by an alert patrolman who fired shots in the air to awaken them when he discovered “lames pouring from the structure at 2:10 a.m.
The eight who lost their lives were burned beyond recognition, and housing authorities said they probably could not be identified until all of the men mown to have been in the building are accounted for. It is feared there may be more bodies in the smoking ruins.
EIGHT BODIES FOUND
Five bodies were found when the blaze was brought under control and three more were discovered in the embers later.
The two-story frame structure burned mrncd to the ground in less than two hours. Fire Chief William Cooper said there never was chance to save it.
His men were handicapped in trying to fight the blaze, he reported, because two hydrants in the immediate vicinity were too rusty to be used and because water pressure in the area was very low. The hydrants, the chief pointed out, are the responsibility of the Federal Projects Housing Corporation, which erected the dormitories with Maritime Commission funds.
One of the injured workers, Henry Manney, 17, is in a critical condition it the Permanente Foundation Hospital in Oakland. He is burned badly on the arms and legs and may not live.
One fireman, J. E. Nelson, stepped on a nail and cut his foot. He was given emergency treatment and an anti-tetanus shot and sent back to duty.
LEAP FROM WINDOWNS
Almost immediately, sleepy residents of the dormitory were jumping from windows or fighting their way through the fire at the doors. Most of them were clad only in underwear or night clothes and were barefoot.
The seven who died either didn’t awaken when the shots were fired, or were unable to get out of their rooms.
The shots also aroused firemen at a city fire station a block away.
They saw the flames shooting up from the building and rang in an alarm for more apparatus.
Three engine companies responded from their station and another came from the main fire station at Fifth Street and Macdonald Avenue. The entire building was blazing by the time they arrived.