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Captain Hugh Mulzac

Captain and crew of a new Liberty Ship SS Booker T. Washington just after it completed its maiden voyage to England. Captain Hugh Mulzac is fourth from the left on the first row. February 8, 1943.
Captain and crew of a new Liberty Ship SS Booker T. Washington just after it completed its maiden voyage to England. Captain Hugh Mulzac is fourth from the left on the first row. February 8, 1943. (Credit: US NAVY 111-SC-180665, National Archives)
In 1942 at the age of 56, Hugh Mulzac became the first African-American merchant marine naval officer to skipper an integrated crew. More than two decades earlier, Captain Mulzac had declined command of a ship with an all-black crew saying "under no circumstances will I command a Jim Crow vessel."

With Mulzac at the helm, the Liberty Ship SS Booker T. Washington made 22 round-trip voyages in five years carrying 18,000 troops to Europe and the Pacific.

Launching of the SS Booker T. Washington, first Liberty Ship named for an African American.
Launching of the SS Booker T. Washington, first Liberty Ship named for an African American. (Credit: ID LC-USE6- D-007648, Library of Congress)
During World War II, Liberty Ships ferried troops and supplies. The ships were named after prominent Americans, with just 17 of 2,700 vessels named for outstanding African-Americans. The Booker T. Washington, which was christened by opera singer Marian Anderson, was the first to honor an influential black citizen.

In 1920, Mulzac took and passed the U.S. shipmaster exam, but there were no shipboard assignments for a black captain during that era.

Although Mulzac held a master's license, necessary to become a ship’s captain, he spent the next 20 years working in the steward's department of numerous shipping lines. Finding no work on a ship, he became an expert in food service.

With the start of World War II, Mulzac’s luck would change.

On the day his ship launched, Mulzac recalled, "Everything I ever was, stood for, fought for, dreamed of, came into focus that day. The concrete evidence of the achievement gives one's strivings legitimacy, proves that the ambitions were valid, the struggle worthwhile. Being prevented for those twenty-four years from doing the work for which I was trained had robbed life of its most essential meaning. Now at last I could use my training and capabilities fully. It was like being born anew."

Mulzac’s historic achievement made national headlines.

Construction of the liberty ship
Construction of the liberty ship Booker T. Washington. Ernest Enloe Cotton, former Tuskegee student, is shown with a lead man examining the weld-head put on a section of the double bottom of a liberty ship in September of 1942. (Credit: ID FSA.8B04237, Library of Congress)
“Slight, grizzled Hugh Mulzac, ex-seaman, ex-mess boy, was catapulted front and center last week to become a Symbol of Negro participation in the war,” Time magazine reported in October 1942. “When the Liberty freighter Booker T. Washington goes into service from California Shipbuilding's Los Angeles yard in mid-October, the Maritime Commission decided, she will be commanded by a British West Indies-born Brooklyn man, the first Negro to hold a U. S. master's certificate and the first to command a 10,500-ton ship.”

“Captain Mulzac not only promised that he would be able to get qualified Negro officers to serve under him but said that he knew white as well as Negro crewmen willing to serve under him—for the Booker T. is not to be a Jim Crow ship. The Booker T. (for Taliaferro) will serve not only in the war of ocean transport but in the war against race discrimination.”

Captain Hugh Mulzac.
Captain Hugh Mulzac. (Credit: US DOT)
Mulzak was born in the British West Indies in 1886. He worked on the sea after high school, traveling on British vessels. He attended the Nautical School in Swansea, in the United Kingdom and earned a mate's (second in command) license. He sailed as a ship's officer in World War I and moved to the United States where he became a citizen in 1918.

As World War II came to an end, Mulzac was, in his words, back “on the beach,” – the casualty of discrimination yet again. In the midst of the Cold War, shipping companies blacklisted him after his association with the controversial American Labor Party ticket. His Master’s license was revoked.

In 1960, at the age of 74, a federal judge restored Mulzac’s seaman's papers and license. He was only able to find work as a night mate.

Captain Mulzac died in 1971, at age 84, without receiving veteran status for service to his country. In 1988, after a protracted court battle, Mulzac was recognized for his service, courage and perseverance as a decorated war-time officer.

On the Web: African-Americans in the U.S. Merchant Marine and U.S. Maritime Service

 

 
 
 
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