In the late 1700s, black men from Africa sailed America’s waterways and worked on the sea, pursuing the hope of freedom and respect. These black mariners were called “black jacks” and they quietly contributed to the creation of the nation’s maritime industry and the development of the United States.
“Black Jacks” were hard-working African men in their 20s and early 30s who took to the rugged life of seafaring to make a living aboard ships that sailed the Chesapeake Bay region and Atlantic coast. Despite tough working conditions and vicious racism, they worked as captains, pilots, stewards, cabin boys, cooks, drummers, and translators on steamers, whalers, merchant ships and other vessels. The money they earned could pay for their own freedom or freedom for their loved ones.
Among the black men who worked the docks was Frederick Douglass, a former slave and leading abolitionist who worked as a ship caulker in Baltimore. Paul Cuffe began his career as a seaman on whaling and fishing boats before becoming a wealthy sea captain and ship owner. He later became involved in efforts to settle African-Americans in Sierra Leone. Robert Smalls was a slave during and after the Civil War, and became a ship's pilot, sea captain, and politician. He freed himself and his family from slavery on May 13, 1862, by commandeering a Confederate transport ship to freedom in Charleston harbor.
W. Jeffrey Bolster, author of “Black Jacks: African American Seaman in the Age of Sail,” said before emancipation, maritime work was crucial to blacks’ economic survival, liberation strategies and collective identity formation.
“Sailors linked far-flung black communities and united plantations with urban centers,” Bolster writes. “Although black sailors’ tales has never been told, the rise and fall of African-American seafaring in the age of sail was central to the creation of black America.”