Hugh Mulzac: First Black Captain of a WW2 Liberty Ship
Hugh Nathaniel Mulzac (1886-1971) was a master seaman, well qualified to command a merchant vessel. He had many years of sea duty aboard British, Norwegian, and American merchantmen. After studying at the Swansea Nautical College in South Wales, he earned a mate’s license in 1910, qualifying him to be second in command. With those credentials he was able to serve as a deck officer on four ships during World War I. Then, in 1920 he passed the U. S. shipmaster exam with a perfect score of 100 and earned a master’s rating. He was now fully qualified to serve as the captain of a vessel in the United States Merchant Marine.
A captain who could only find work as a cook
But there was one apparently insurmountable problem: Hugh Mulzac was black. Qualified as he was to command an entire ship, the only jobs he could get at sea were in the galley. For two decades, Hugh Mulzac was the most over-qualified ship’s cook in maritime history. (He made the most of that limitation by becoming an acknowledged expert in shipboard food service management).
German U-boats take a toll
But then came World War II. When America entered the war in December of 1941, Germany immediately began stationing submarines off the East Coast of the United States to sink supply ships headed for Europe. The U-boats were very successful. In 1942 an average of 33 Allied ships were sunk per week.
Serving as an auxiliary to the US Navy in time of war, the Merchant Marine suffered the greatest percentage loss of any branch of the American military. Those losses were tragic for the seamen who died and their families. And the loss of such a large number of cargo vessels, putting in jeopardy the ability of “the arsenal of democracy” to get troops and war materiel to the European theater, was potentially devastating to the Allied war effort.
But, ironically, it was those heavy losses in both ships and men that finally gave Hugh Mulzac his opportunity to become the ship’s captain he was so well qualified to be.
The shortage of ships and of seamen causes a change in racial attitudes
It was clear that if the U. S. and its Allies were to receive the supplies needed to carry on the war, thousands of new cargo vessels would have to be put afloat. That need was filled through the famous “Liberty Ship” program. These vessels, all built to the same standardized plan, were designed to be mass produced as quickly as possible. By war’s end, 2,711 of them would be launched.
Building Liberty Ships in Georgia
But it was not only ships that had to be provided in massive numbers. Each ship had to be manned by a crew of trained seamen. And with the pool of qualified merchant sailors being rapidly diminished by losses to the U-boats, the Merchant Marine was finally pushed to the point of employing experienced seamen wherever they could be found. Even if they happened to be black.
So, it came about that in 1942, Hugh Mulzac, with qualifications far exceeding those of anyone still on shore by that point, was finally offered command of a ship. But there was still a problem so significant that Mulzac initially refused the offer. The U.S. Maritime Commission wanted him to captain a vessel with a segregated, all-black crew. And Hugh Mulzac would have none of it.
A seaman becomes an activist for racial equality
Born on March 26, 1886 in the British West Indies, Hugh Mulzac had first come to the United States as a crewman aboard a Norwegian vessel that landed in North Carolina. It was then, as he says in his autobiography A Star to Steer By, that he was first confronted with the "barbarous customs of our northern neighbors."
Although he immigrated to the United States in 1911, becoming a citizen in 1918, Mulzac never got over his abhorrence of the “barbarous customs” of race prejudice and segregation that afflicted his new homeland, and absolutely refused to willingly participate in perpetuating that evil system. He would stick by that determination even when it seemed doing so would prevent him from ever fulfilling his dream.
In 1920 Mulzac served as mate on the SS Yarmouth, a ship of African American activist Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line. Although he briefly became the captain of the Yarmouth, he grew disillusioned with the way Garvey’s shipping company was managed (it went out of business in 1922). Mulzac resigned in 1921 to start his own maritime school. That only lasted a year, and Mulzac soon found himself once again at sea, relegated to the galleys of the ships he served on.
With his first-hand experience of the pernicious effects of racial prejudice in the shipping industry, Mulzac in 1937 became a founding member of the National Maritime Union. There was one key issue that led Mulzac to involve himself in the labor movement. “Most important for me,” he said, “was the inclusion of a clause in the constitution providing that there should be no discrimination against any union member because of his race, color, political creed, religion, or national origin. This was a milestone in the history of the waterfront…it was the first maritime union to establish this basic principle and to enforce it."
“Under no circumstances will I command a Jim Crow vessel”
With this commitment to racial equality on the seas, Hugh Mulzac was in no humor to compromise about shipboard segregation. When, in 1942 at the age of 56, he was offered what would likely be his last opportunity to command a vessel, but with the proviso that there must be no race mixing among the crew, Mulzac resolutely stuck by his refusal to captain a segregated ship. “Under no circumstances will I command a Jim Crow vessel,” he told the Maritime Commission, and turned down the offer.
Do you think you would have had the courage to turn down a captaincy rather than command a segregated crew?
He later expressed his outrage in his autobiography:
If there was ever a moment when the real meaning of democracy could and had to be demonstrated to the peoples of the world, the moment was now! And what was America's answer in this hour of need? A Jim Crow ship! Named for a Negro, christened by a Negro, captained by a Negro, and no doubt manned by Negroes!
Finally, desperate for qualified officers, and spurred on by protests by the NAACP and other black organizations, the Maritime Commission relented and dropped their insistence on segregation. Hugh Mulzac would finally have his ship, and an integrated crew with it.
The SS Booker T. Washington: first Liberty Ship named for an African American
The ship Captain Mulzac would command was a pioneer for racial equity in its own right. Each Liberty Ship was named for some prominent American. Out of the total of 2,711, seventeen would be named for African Americans. The very first of these was the SS Booker T. Washington.
From the moment of its naming, the Booker T. Washington was a source of pride and hope, and as importantly, jobs for the African American community. It was built by racially mixed construction crews, many of whom were gaining access, for the first time in their lives, to training for something beyond menial jobs. The shipyard in Richmond, California where the Booker T. Washington was constructed eventually employed 6000 African American workers, 1000 of them women.
The SS Booker T. Washington
August 19, 1942
September 29, 1942
October 17, 1942
Massive press coverage of the new ship and her new captain
At a time when the U. S. Navy would allow black sailors to serve only as stewards, the story of the Booker T. Washington and her African American skipper received wide coverage. For example, the October 5, 1942 issue of Time Magazine had the following story:
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. 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 Mulzac was as good as his word. The crew of 81 he assembled consisted of 18 different nationalities from eight nations and thirteen American states. The captain later noted in a newspaper article that among the crew were white seamen from Florida and Texas.
“They were the finest fellows I ever sailed with,” Captain Mulzac said, “and their attitudes were much different from that of the Southerners you meet in those States.”
The Booker T. Washington is launched
The launching of the ship, on September 29, 1942, was an occasion of deep significance and celebration for the entire African American community. The event was front page news in the black press all across the nation. A headline in the Baltimore Afro-American trumpeted, “Launching Called Morale-Building Show of Democracy.”
Not only did the Afro-American do full-page spreads on the story, it went so far as to pay the way of Captain Mulzac’s daughter from Baltimore to the Wilmington, California launch site, and then featured her first-person account of her “Thrilling Transcontinental Flight.”
Another luminary who had her way paid to the launching was Miss Louise Washington, granddaughter of Booker T. Washington. An employee of the US Department of Agriculture, she was sent to the event by the Maritime Commission.
Famed contralto Marian Anderson, accompanied by pioneer educator Mary McLeod Bethune and other prominent dignitaries, christened the new vessel. Ruby Berkley Goodwin later wrote a poem about the occasion:
We Launched A Ship - Ruby Berkley Goodwin
On one never-to-be-forgotten day, we launched a ship.
The full-throated voice of Marian Anderson proclaimed,
“I christen thee Booker T. Washington.”
A bottle broke and champagne sprayed the prow
Of the giant liberty ship as she slid proudly down the ways
And sat serenely on the broad face of the ocean.
. . .
We launched a ship –
A ship with a glorious mission,
And it became the symbol of a
Dawning brotherhood throughout the world.
The one who was perhaps most deeply affected by the launching of the Booker T. Washington was Captain Hugh Mulzac himself. He later wrote:
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.
The impact of the Booker T. Washington entering into the maritime service with the first ever black captain in United States Merchant Marine history was felt all around the world. For example, one event that Captain Mulzac considered a highlight of the ship’s maiden voyage happened when they reached Panama. The Baltimore Afro-American tells the story in its January 9, 1943 issue:
When they first dropped anchor in (the) Panama Canal Zone, all of the colored schools closed to celebrate the arrival of the Booker T. Washington and the first colored skipper to be in complete charge of a United States ship.
An exemplary record of war-time service
Starting with its first trans-Atlantic crossing early in 1943, the Booker T. Washington and her captain built an outstanding record. They made 22 successful round trips from the US to the European, Mediterranean, and Pacific theaters of war, ferrying 18,000 troops and thousands of tons of supplies, including ammunition, airplanes, tanks, locomotives, jeeps, and more.
Each Liberty Ship was armed with deck guns and antiaircraft guns manned by crews provided by the Navy. The Booker T. Washington was in action against the enemy several times, and is credited with shooting down two enemy airplanes. But not one of her own crew was lost.
Captain Mulzac himself was highly esteemed by his crew. The Baltimore Afro-American of January 16, 1943 records one crewman’s reaction after the Booker T. Washington’s first voyage. Harry Alexander, described as a white deck engineer, said:
I’ve been on ships where the captains set up nights thinking of things to do to irritate the crew. Our old man spends his time teaching navigation.
That was not, by any means, an isolated expression of regard. A January 16, 1964 article in the Village Voice reporting on an exhibition of Captain Mulzac’s paintings, records some memories from another of the skipper’s former crew members. Irwin Rosenhouse, whose gallery was hosting the event, recalled the impact his old commanding officer had made on him:
“The Booker T. was the only ship I've ever been on which had a sense of purpose from the top down," Rosenhouse told The Voice. He recalled the classes in seamanship, in art, and in international affairs, as well as the tongue-lashing he'd received when he chose to stand watch on a stormy night inside.
Captain Mulzac and the Booker T. Washington became an inspiration to young people of color, a signal that they, too, could dream and through hard work, see those dreams fulfilled. Joseph B. Williams, for example, served under Captain Mulzac as a cadet-in-training. He would go on to become the first African-American to graduate from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. For him the captain was a "demanding taskmaster" who taught him "how to be a qualified officer."
Another young man influenced by the example of the Washington and her captain was 16-year old Merle Milton of Connersville, Indiana. He told MAST Magazine in 1944:
Right now I'm shipping out as an ordinary seaman, but I don't expect to stay that way for long. I want to go to officers' school and the proposed Seamen's Bill of Rights provides for that. Who knows, maybe I'll get a master's license some day like Captain Hugh Mulzac on the SS Booker T. Washington.
The aftermath of the war
Despite the acclaim garnered by Captain Mulzac for his performance on the bridge of the Booker T. Washington, once the war was over, race prejudice came roaring back.
In 1947 the Booker T. was turned back over to the Maritime Commission. Captain Mulzac went into the hospital for a leg operation. When he emerged, he found himself, as he put it, “on the beach” again. There were no maritime jobs for him or any of the other black officers who had served with such distinction during the war. Hugh Mulzac would never again command a ship.
It got worse. During the McCarthy era, Mulzac’s labor activism was used against him by Red-baiters. In 1950 he ran for President of the borough of Queens in New York City, getting a respectable 15,500 votes. But he had run on the ticket of the American Labor Party, which some politicians accused of being influenced by Communists. All this resulted in Mulzac being branded a security risk, and his master’s license was suspended. He fought that edict in court, and in 1960 a federal judge restored his license. That allowed him, at age 74, to once again go to sea, serving not as a captain, but as a night mate.
But Captain Mulzac never allowed the bigotry that confronted him to control his life. He had started painting during the last voyage of the Booker T. Washington. Now he became more serious about it. His work was exhibited in a number of galleries in New York City to very positive reviews.
Hugh Mulzac was certainly a pioneer for racial justice. He, along with the multi-racial crew of the Booker T. Washington, demonstrated what people of color could accomplish when given the chance, and that people of all races can live and work together in harmony.
“They said it wouldn’t work, but it did,” he said.
But beyond that tremendous accomplishment against great odds, Hugh Mulzac knew that his life and career were dedicated to an even bigger idea. He said,
I had to begin to understand that discrimination was not only my problem, but a fight of the whole colored race - and of whites too, for that matter, though precious few seemed to realize it.
For his willingness to put his career on the line to defend the principle that prejudice and discrimination have no place in a democratic society, we all owe Hugh Mulzac a well deserved vote of thanks.
Captain Hugh Mulzac died in East Meadow, NY on January 30, 1971 at the age of 84.
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© 2013 Ronald E. Franklin