Black mariner's authority in WWII a U.S. first


February 01, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Capt. Hugh N. Mulzac was a career mariner whose lifelong struggle for racial equality and equal opportunity made history during World War II when he became the first black man to command a U.S. merchant vessel.

Mulzac, who lived in Baltimore for several decades, was born on Union Island in the Caribbean in 1886, the son of a farmer and a woman of African descent. His paternal grandfather was Scottish, and his grandmother a native islander.

After graduating from high school in 1907, Mulzac decided to become a mariner rather than study engineering as his father had wished.

"Nothing appealed to me less than four grueling years at college when distant ports, new faces, and thrilling adventures beckoned," wrote Mulzac in his autobiography, A Star to Steer By.

During his first ocean voyage aboard the Sunbeam, a 90-ton schooner under the command of his brother John, he became seasick.

"Fighting off the dizziness from the rocking of the ship and the foul smell of the bilgewater in the hold I mounted the mast. Fear drove away the seasickness, and I have never been seasick since," he wrote.

After earning his second mate's certificate at Swansea Nautical College in England and studying at the Shipping Board in New York, Mulzac worked aboard a Norwegian banana boat shuttling between Jamaica and Baltimore.

Landing in the city jobless in 1910, he applied for a mate's position at the Merchants & Miners Transportation Co.'s offices at 17 Light St.

He was told that blacks were hired to work in the steward's department, and as he made the rounds of steamship offices, he heard the same excuse over and over again.

Mulzac finally grudgingly accepted the position of cook and sailed aboard M & M line vessels until the outbreak of World War I, when he served as a deck officer on British and American ships.

With the end of the war in 1918, he became a U.S. citizen and returned to Baltimore to take the examination for his master's ticket.

"My score, it turned out, was 100, and I had not only finished the examination in record time but was the first colored seaman in Baltimore history to sit successfully for his license," he wrote.

But Mulzac still could not get a ship's command. Dispirited, he left the sea and contemplated becoming a Baltimore hotel chef. He later learned wallpapering and established a wallpapering business in order to support his growing McCullough Street household.

"The years from 1922 to 1936 were the most miserable of my life," he wrote. "Though I was assured reasonably steady employment (mostly as a steward), I did not find $60 a month enough to keep four hungry little Mulzacs clothed, shod, and with full bellies.

"Coupled with my family's immediate deprivation was a spiritual suffering - the fraying of my dream. It hardly seemed possible that I would ever sail on deck, let alone in a licensed capacity."

Things began to improve for Mulzac in the late 1930s, when he sailed aboard the S.S. President Polk , a passenger liner, on seven around-the-world voyages.

He continued pressing his case for a command through the National Maritime Union and the National Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots.

With the outbreak of World War II, Mulzac's dream was realized when he was given command in 1942 of the new Liberty ship Booker T. Washington, the first U.S. vessel named for an African-American. It was christened by opera star Marian Anderson.

Mulzac vigorously fought the War Shipping Board's suggestion that it be manned by an all-black crew.

"There isn't a colored citizen anywhere in the world who would fail to recognize such an act as prima facie evidence of discrimination in America," Mulzac wrote.

"Everything I ever was, stood for, fought for, dreamed of, came into focus that day," wrote Mulzac as he entered his bridge for the first time. "The concrete evidence of the achievement gives one's strivings legitimacy, proves that the ambitions were valid, the struggle worthwhile. Now at last, I could use my training and capabilities fully. It was like being born anew."

Sailing with an integrated crew, Mulzac and his ship made wartime history. During 22 round trips from American ports, the vessel carried equipment and 18,000 troops to the European and Pacific theaters, without loss of any personnel during its five years at sea under Mulzac's command. The ship's crew also shot down two enemy aircraft.

At war's end, the ship was returned to the Maritime Commission in 1947 and was broken up in 1969.

Mulzac, who never again held a sea command, died two years later.

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