Many working seamen from the Caribbean area signed on ships and came to the U.S. when their vessels docked there. The majority who settled undoubtedly contributed along with other immigrants in building up that nation. One was Captain Hugh Mulzac, a merchant marine captain who was born in 1886 in Union Island, part of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, in the Eastern Caribbean. He emigrated to Baltimore in 1918.
Mulzac was an important person in the early U.S. civil rights struggles of “people of color” which included Hispanics, Asians, and native Indian (“Amerindian”) peoples. He was the first African-American to obtain a Master’s License. This was the rank of Captain which qualified him to skipper an ocean-going cargo ship.
More importantly, he was a leader in obtaining better wages and working conditions for seamen of all races. Captain Mulzac, who today has a Vincentian Coast Guard vessel named after him, assisted immeasurably in opening the doors for a more equitable and just working environment in the merchant marine service. This was in the early 1940s when the only jobs at sea for ethnic minorities were cooks and stewards ‑ in contrast with today when many large U.S. Navy and “cargo boats”, as islanders refer to merchant marine vessels, are captained by non‑white officers and also women.
Captain Mulzac’s early days in the U.S. were frustrating. The U.S. cargo boat (and liner) was much larger than today. He got a job as a Mate (second in command) on the aging tramp steamer Yarmouth, belonging to Marcus Garvey’s all-black owned and crewed Black Star Line. That line went on the rocks in 1922 because of institutional opposition to the firm’s owners, Garvey’s United African Improvement Association. Captain Mulzac went back to cook and steward jobs whenever they came along. It was hard as he had a wife and four children to support.
At that time, the seamen had a fairly democratic system where they were hired through the union halls. The late Guyanese President Dr. Cheddi Jagan witnessed this when he was studying in the U.S. in the 1940s and praised it. Captain Mulzac got involved with the National Maritime Union (NMU) through a Communist Party USA leader in Baltimore, Al Lannon.
There was a democratic dimension to this trade union which was formed in 1937 in the hectic labor upsurges of the period by Joseph Curran (1906‑1981) an early progressive who later took reactionary positions.
Part of this dimension was its multi‑racial policies. Both black and white seafarers were apparently treated equally by the labor body. Such a remarkable progressive outlook for the conjuncture (some of the seamen’s and waterfront workers’ unions were led by corrupt Mafia types even before the 1950s of Marlon Brando’s movie On the Waterfront) did not extend to the hiring practices of most shipping companies. The NMU’s Vice‑President was a black Jamaican seaman named Ferdinand Smith who, like Captain Mulzac who was sympathetic to the CPUSA. The party was then very influential, being active in other civil rights campaigns such as demanding the release of nine black young men (The Scottsboro Boys) accused in 1931 of raping two white women.
It was easy for Mulzac to support multi-racialism. Not because his grandfather, who once cultivated cotton on Union island, was white. A sensitive man, Captain Mulzac undoubtedly observed the injustices and discriminatory practices against people of color in the US at the time. There was a shameful racist incident when the young (aged 21) Mulzac tried to attend church when his ship called at Wilmington, North Carolina. He was refused entry because of his color. His involvement, which he always defended as his democratic right in the great traditions of the U.S., with the “white” CP and the union channeled this hatred of racial discrimination along a constructive trajectory, working for the unity of all the races.
While the work of Captain Mulzac, Smith and other outstanding individuals are noted, there were, in fairness, other fronts on the civil rights campaign. The NMU, for example, supported the meeting between President Roosevelt and black railway porters union leader A. Philip Randolph, who demanded a Fair Employment Practices legislation which led to defense industries (such as the shipbuilding firms) hiring more people of color.
In October 1942, as the USA got more involved in the Allied effort to defeat Hitler’s fascist regime, Captain Mulzac was given command of the freighter Booker T. Washington. At first, in keeping with the times where crew on both naval and cargo boats were segregated, the authorities wanted to assign only a black crew to the ship. Captain Mulzac refused to sail with what he called a “Jim Crow” arrangement. As he wrote in his autobiography, “A Star to Steer By,” “I wanted the most experienced crew the NMU could supply.” For Mulzac, this meant a mixed race crew.
The Booker T., carrying vital war supplies such as tanks, aircraft, and ammunition to the European front, made 22 successful round trips across the North Atlantic. Partly by skill and partly by luck, those on board managed to avoid being torpedoed by the German submarines. The subs sunk hundreds of other cargo boats with the loss of many equally courageous and hardworking sailors as those in the navy. The efficient operation of the ship was a model for others to emulate.
In 1947, after the war ended, the ship’s owners laid up the vessel. Captain Mulzac was out of work. Then 61, he tried his hand at painting maritime scenes and also started a wall painting business. At this time, the anti‑democratic and anti‑left current in U.S. politics known as McCarthyism unjustly blacklisted Mulzac along with many others for their involvement in progressive and democratic causes.
For example, Mulzac ran as a candidate for President of the New York City borough of Queens under the American Labor Party ticket. He lost but received a relatively high 15,500 votes. The New York-based party was much like the social democratic Labour Party in the UK and later the Caribbean islands, though the left like the CP urged people to support it.
For this and other perceived indiscretions, he was blacklisted and his Master’s license revoked. He could not get a job when the Korean War broke out because he was deemed a “security risk.” He fought back and in 1960 a federal judge restored his license along with others. He was then 74 but was able to find work as a night mate. He died in New York in 1971.
I had read Mulzac’s fascinating book during the 1980s, kindly given to me by Vincentian Renwick Rose (now Coordinator of the Windward Islands Farmers Association) and I, in turn, gave it away to the office of the National Union of Seamen (NUS) in Barbados. While I was in New York last September I tried to get onto any of Mulzac’s relatives for an interview, but time ran away from me and I couldn’t reach them.
We must remember the example of Vincentian‑born Captain Hugh Mulzac. Not only because of his sterling pioneer work in the U.S. civil rights struggles but to remind us that immigrants to all countries are good and beneficial additions especially in the area of integrating among the receiving people and working with them for a better all-around society.
Hugh Mulzac square in his homeland Union Island
SVG coast guard named in his honour