It was late October 1942. The crew of the Liberty Ship Booker T. Washington had just “lashed down the last crate of deck cargo.” Like other World War II Liberty Ships, they were ready to make the perilous journey into German submarine infested waters. This ship, crew, and captain were different, though.
At the helm of the Booker T. was the African American British West Indies born Hugh Mulzac, the first man of color to command a U.S. Merchant Marine ship, six years prior to the formal end of segregation in the U.S. armed forces. Additionally, the Booker T. was fully integrated, something Mulzac had insisted upon as a condition of taking command.
How could we “launch a jim crow [sic] ship in the very name of democracy,” Mulzac asked? “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 jubilantly recalled in his 1963 autobiography A Star To Steer By, “Everything I ever was, stood for, fought for, dreamed of, came into focus that day…It was like being born anew.”
Though there were no “formal festivities,” as the departure was secret, opera singer Marian Anderson christened the vessel. Probably best known for her 1939 performance at the Lincoln Memorial in front of 75,000 people, Anderson was an activist like Mulzac, Anderson was friends with Paul Robeson, and she often lent her name to their shared radical interests, such as the Council on African Affairs soon to be led by a mutual friend, Alphaeus Hunton.1 Her christening illustrates the network of militant Black activists Mulzac and his union, the National Maritime Union, then gravitated around. The Booker T. Washington became a model ship with union meetings, educational seminars, as well as fundraising for numerous causes held onboard.
As the ship departed, Mulzac savored the victory. “The harbor began to fall away behind us, and with it the insults of hundreds of company clerks and sneering port captains, the memory of every savage racial slur. At last, I was the master of my own ship, with 42 fine sailors under me.” During the war, Mulzac made 22 round-trip voyages, transporting 18,000 soldiers and tons of wartime armaments to both the European and the Pacific theaters. In all, 250,000 Merchant Marines served with honor in WWII.
Mulzac wasn’t just a war-time hero, though. He was “a hero of the civil rights and labor movement,” Jeremy Hope, International Vice President of the Masters, Mates, and Pilots (MM&P) Union told a recent gathering of Merchant Marine veterans in Baltimore. Self-critically, Hope also noted that his union didn’t always champion diversity and civil rights. “We enforced institutional racism and discrimination” during this time, he added. But Mulzac knew the power of unity, and despite the racism he faced, refused to cross seafaring picket lines.
“He stood with our union, though he was refused membership. He refused to be a scab,” Hope added.
Born in 1886, Mulzac attended Nautical School in Swansea, Wales, earning a mate’s license, and eventually became a ship’s officer during World War I. In 1918, he became a U.S. citizen, and by 1920 he gained his U.S. master’s certificate – the first African American to do so. However, due to racist, Jim Crow practices he was denied a captain’s position. He served a short stint with Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association’s Black Star Line. Then, for two decades Mulzac toiled in the steward’s department of various shipping lines, often as a cook. Until October 1942, racism prevented him “from doing the work for which I was trained…”
Unfortunately, the war-time concessions African Americans like Mulzac had fought so hard for and won quickly evaporated once the war was over. The Booker T. Washington and Mulzac “were [both] consigned to the boneyard,” as he put it.
“I had struggled all my life for that opportunity that came in 1942. As it had come, so it had to pass; there was only one thing to do – return to the struggle!” To Mulzac, it was “obvious” that mates and skippers “with far less seniority…not to mention years at sea,” were replacing him based on the color of his skin. Two years without work, Mulzac filed a discrimination suit on September 15, 1949; it was claimed that he was refused seafaring employment due to a “cigarette incident,” not because he was Black.
Characteristically, Mulzac worried about his shipmates as well. Of the 200 African American deck or engine officers who served on Merchant Marine vessels during the war, Mulzac found “now not a single colored officer was left on the bridge” of a U.S. ship.
Labor unions and radicals – communists and socialists, often the most vocal proponents of civil rights and equality – were put in the cross-hairs. Mulzac’s union, and the broader Black left – the National Negro Congress, the Southern Negro Youth Congress, and the Council on African Affairs, for example, all of which Mulzac supported – were early targets as the tide turned to Cold War and Red Scare.
During the late-1940s and early-1950s radical trade unionists were removed from CIO unions; many were communists who had founded and led militant, democratic, multi-racial unions. In all, unions representing over one million members were purged during this time. Union locals were raided, often by more conservative AFL affiliates willing to acquiesce to segregation and Jim Crow.
Mulzac, the NMU, and its Jamaican born second-in-command Ferdinand Smith, were made examples. Smith was deported as a Communist. The NMU’s one-time progressive President Joseph Curran made a sharp right turn to anti-communism, removing progressives from ships.
In 1951, Mulzac was labeled “a security risk.” His seaman’s papers and license were revoked. He was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. It was determined that Mulzac was “affiliated with or [was] sympathetic to an organization, association, group, or combination of persons subversive or disloyal to the government of the United States.” While he denied membership in the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA), Mulzac didn’t mince words: “…I asserted unequivocally my dedication to the cause of Negro freedom and equality and to socialism.”
When asked if he knew members of the Communist Party, he replied “No” – nor did he care. He added:
I never asked a person’s politics because I had a simpler and more reliable way of knowing who and what people are. I judged them by their behavior…In some 45 years of working on the American waterfronts I have met many men who spoke the doctrine of Marx and Lenin, who distributed the Daily Worker, and who asked me for contributions to this or that cause. Virtually without exception they have been devoted trade unionists, firm friends of the colored and minority people, and I have helped them unstintingly – but I have never asked them what party they belonged to and I didn’t care.
Like Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Alphaeus Hunton, and Claudia Jones, Mulzac was unwilling to break with the CPUSA or acquiesce to anti-communism. He was unwilling to stay silent as a wave of political repression engulfed our nation and threatened to drown civil liberties. For this, he was punished.
At the recent Baltimore Merchant Marine veteran’s conference, Captain Donald Marcus, International President of the MM&P, connected the war-time struggle against fascism to the postwar Red Scare. Captain Marcus said, “Mulzac not only fought racial injustice, he fought fascism, and he fought McCarthyism.”
In 2022, Mulzac will be posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for his service, dedication, and sacrifice as a Merchant Marine. This recognition is long overdue, but it doesn’t go far enough; it doesn’t recognize Mulzac’s commitment to socialism. Nor does it connect the long neglected links made between Black radicals and their red allies, a Red-Black alliance , which Mulzac symbolizes.
The post-war anti-communist Red Scare sought to torpedo Mulzac and those like him who fought for African American equality, workers’ rights, peace, and socialism. Similarly, today state legislatures are attempting to sink any discussion of Critical Race Theory, slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation; some in Texas are even arguing that discussion of the Holocaust should be “balanced” with “opposing” views.
It seems the links between racism and fascism are just as present today as they were in the 1940s and 1950s. People of Mulzac’s character are needed now more than ever.
- For example, Anderson spoke at a Council on African Affairs sponsored event at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem attended by 4,000 people. See: “Meeting Aids South Africans,” New York Times, January 8, 1946, and Helen Simon, “4,000 Give Food, Urge Liberty for Africans,” Daily Worker, January 9, 1946, 8. ↩