Liberty ships honored blacks in U.S. history


March 06, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced a $350 million emergency shipbuilding program that resulted in 2,750 Liberty ships being built in the nation's shipyards by the end of World War II.

Because Bethlehem Steel Corp's Sparrows Point shipyard was jammed with work for the Navy, the company constructed a new yard on the site of an old Pullman Co. plant in the city's Fairfield section.

The Bethlehem-Fairfield yard, which built and launched the first Liberty ship, the Patrick Henry, in 1941, hummed with activity around the clock during the war years.

By 1943, the yard employed 46,700 workers, including 6,000 African-Americans. By war's end, they had constructed 384 Liberty ships, 94 Victories and 30 LSTs and established a world shipbuilding record.

Liberties were named for deceased prominent American men and women: presidents, governors, Supreme Court justices, actors, railroad presidents, aviators, musicians, industrialists, artists, writers, union leaders, newspaper barons and signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Some ship's names were so obscure that sailors often had no idea for whom their vessel was named, observed John Gorley Bunker in his 1972 book, Liberty Ships: The Ugly Ducklings of World War II.

Among them were 17 Liberties named for African-Americans and this was at a time when the Army and Navy were racially segregated.

The ships honoring African-Americans included the Robert S. Abbott, Robert J. Banks, George Washington Carver, William Cox, Frederick Douglass, Paul Laurence Dunbar, John Hope, James Weldon Johnson, George A. Lawson, John Merrick, John H. Murphy, Edward A. Savoy, Harriet Tubman, Robert L. Vann, James K. Walker, Booker T. Washington and Bert Williams.

Probably several of those 17 vessels, built and launched in Baltimore, were constructed with the help of African-American shipyard workers who labored so diligently in the Fairfield yard alongside their white co-workers.

The first 10,500-ton Liberty named for an African-American was the Booker T. Washington, built and launched in 1942 at California Shipbuilding Corp. at Terminal Island, Los Angeles.

The new ship was christened by Marian Anderson, the Metropolitan Opera contralto who three years earlier had been barred from performing at Washington's Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution because she was black.

The ship's master, Hugh Mulzac, was offered an all-black crew by the U.S. Maritime Commission.

"Under no circumstances will I command a Jim Crow ship," Mulzac told the commission.

"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!" recalled Mulzac in his autobiography, A Star to Steer By.

Under his command, with an integrated crew representing 18 nationalities, the Booker T. Washington successfully completed 22 roundtrip voyages and transported 18,000 troops to both the European and Pacific theaters of war through submarine-infested waters.

During the vessel's five years at sea, Mulzac never lost one man and its crew shot down two enemy aircraft. The ship was returned to the Reserve Fleet and scrapped at Portland, Ore., in 1969.

On May 22, 1943, the Frederick Douglass, named for the former Talbot County slave and ship's caulker who became a noted orator, abolitionist and newspaper editor, slid down the ways at Bethlehem-Fairfield into the placid waters of the Patapsco River. Its captain was Adrian Richardson, also an African-American.

The ship's sponsor was Ann Wiggin Brown, a Baltimore-born black opera singer, accompanied by Baltimore Mayor Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin. The Victory Four, a black quartet, serenaded the crowd that gathered to watch the ship launching.

Looking out from the platform across a sea of faces, Brown was heartened by the many black shipbuilders she saw who had taken a moment's respite from their work.

"Democracy belongs to all of us and we must work for it together and in harmony," she told them.

The Douglass was later sunk by a German U-boat in the North Atlantic.

The life and work of abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who was born a slave in Dorchester County and became known as the "Moses" of her people, became the inspiration for the name of another Liberty ship.

The ship was built at the New England Shipbuilding Corp. yard in South Portland, Maine, and was christened in 1944 by first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who vigorously smashed a bottle of Champagne across its bows. After completing its wartime duties, the ship was retired to the Reserve Fleet and broken up in 1972 at Houston.

The Bethlehem-Fairfield yard was the setting for the March 30, 1944, launch of the John H. Murphy, named for the founder of the Afro-American newspaper chain.

This time the christening honors fell to Frances L. Murphy, the daughter of the publisher, who had died in 1922. Looking on were such dignitaries as McKeldin, Maryland Gov. Herbert R. O'Conor, Carl Murphy, president of the Afro-American, and H.C. Byrd, president of the University of Maryland.

The Murphy had a long career after its wartime service. The ship was later renamed the Old Dominion State, Henry Ulman, Omnium Explorer, Valiant Explorer and Mount McKinley.

The 416-foot long vessel was later lengthened to 511 feet and renamed Volusia. It was scrapped in Hong Kong in 1969.

Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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