In their salute to African American mariners, The United States Department of Transportation Maritime Administration acknowledged the many contributions of African American men and women during their service to America. More often than not, these men and women faithfully served their country even though they endured discrimination.
According to The Maritime Administration, “African-Americans served in every capacity aboard merchant ships, at a time when the United States Army and Navy employed policies of racial restriction and segregation. For example, at the beginning of World War II, African-Americans could serve only as cooks, servers in officers’ quarters and janitors.”
In an effort to make up for these past mistakes The Maritime Administration provides the following information for anyone interested in discovering or rediscovering “African Americans Making Maritime History.”
- The Story of a Wartime African-American Mariner
James R. Europe
James R. Europe, Jr., an African-American mariner, served his country during World War II.
The son of a well-known musician, bandleader and composer of the early 20th century, James Reese Europe, Jim Europe, Jr. became a seaman apprentice in the merchant marine in 1942. He sailed aboard Liberty Ships prior to enrolling in officer training school.
At the U.S. Maritime Service Training School at Fort Trumbull in New London, Connecticut, Europe was the only African-American in his section of 30 students.
Europe graduated March 1945 with the rank of ensign, U.S. Maritime Service. He later earned his license as a third assistant engineer and a promotion to lieutenant USMS, in December 1946.
Lieutenant Europe joined the New York City Police Department, and later the Fire Department, from which he retired as a decorated lieutenant.
He earned a graduate degree in 1975 and worked as an alcohol/drug counselor. In 1988, Europe received the Leadership Award of the Nassau County Commission on Human Relations.
- The First African-American Commander
Captain Hugh Mulzac
Born in the British West Indies in 1886, Captain Hugh Mulzac went to sea after high school, sailing on British vessels. He later attended the Nautical School in Swansea, in the United Kingdom, earning a mate’s license. He sailed as a ship’s officer in World War I, and came to the United States, becoming a citizen in 1918.
Although he held a master’s license, which qualified him to be a ship’s captain, he worked for 20 years in the steward’s department of various shipping lines.
With the outbreak of World War II, Mulzac recognized an opportunity to use his license and command a vessel. At age 56, he was named master of the new Liberty ship Booker T. Washington, christened by legendary opera singer Marian Anderson.
Mulzac insisted on having an integrated crew, not the all black crew that had been planned. The U.S. Maritime Commission relented, and the Booker T. Washington made 22 round-trip voyages with Mulzac at the helm.
Joseph B. Williams, the first African-American graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, sailed as a cadet-in-training aboard the Liberty ship Booker T. Washington. He remembered Capt. Hugh Mulzac as a “demanding taskmaster,” but who taught him “how to be a qualified officer.”
- A Landmark Liberty Ship
The SS Booker T. Washington
The Liberty ship Booker T. Washington was the first major U.S. oceangoing vessel to be named after an African-American.
The Booker T. Washington was built by the California Shipbuilding Corp. at Terminal Island, Los Angeles. Launched September 29, 1942.
There were 16 other Liberty Ships named in honor of African Americans
The Booker T. Washington was recycled in July 1969 in Portland, OR, but remains an interesting and significant footnote in the chronicle of African-American seafaring.
- First African-American Graduate of U.S. Merchant Marine Academy
Joseph B. Williams
Joseph Banks Williams was the first African-American to enroll and graduate from the United States Merchant Marine Cadet Corps. The United States Naval Academy refused to admit Mr. Williams.
Mr. Williams was deck cadet on the SS Booker T. Washington, which carried war cargo to Europe and North Africa during his 10 months aboard. He served under Captain Hugh Mulzac.
After graduation, he went on active duty with the Navy, which was finally accepting African-Americans as officers.
Mr. Williams became the second African-American officer in the Naval Civil Engineer Corps.
After World War II, Williams earned a bachelor of law degree from New York University in 1949 and a master’s in 1954.
Mr. Williams became administrative judge of the criminal courts in 1982, and left that post in 1986 to join the State Supreme Court’s Appellate Team were he stayed until his retirement.
Joseph B. Williams died of a heart attack in April 19, 1992.
- A Story of High Seas Heroism
William Tillman : Hero of the Union
According to New York Times reporter Rick Beard in an article ‘The Lion of the Day’ dated August 4, 2011, “On Aug. 3, 1861, Harper’s Weekly published the astounding account of William Tillman, a 27-year old African-American sailor born a free man in Delaware.”
Tillman had been on the crew of the Yankee merchantman the S. J. Waring. On July 6 the 300-ton schooner, operated by a crew of eight under the command of Captain Francis Smith, had left New York bound for Montevideo, Uruguay, with a cargo of foodstuffs and a single passenger. Three days into its voyage, the ship was captured by a Confederate privateer, the Jefferson Davis.
William Wells Brown, a former slave who had become a prominent abolitionist lecturer and author, described what happened next:
The African seizes the revolver, drives the crew below deck, orders the release of the Yankee, puts the enemy in irons, and proclaims himself master of the vessel.
The Waring’s head is turned towards New York, with the stars and stripes flying, a fair wind, and she rapidly retraces her steps. A storm comes up: more men are needed to work the ship. Tillman orders the rebels to be unchained, and brought on deck. The command is obeyed; and they are put to work, but informed, that, if they show any disobedience, they will be shot down. Five days more, and “The S.J. Waring” arrives in the port of New York, under command of William Tillman, the Negro patriot.