Hugh Mulzac (1886-1971) was the first U.S. African American Merchant Marine Shipmaster. As the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, there was a severe shortage of merchant mariners. Supplies were desperately needed overseas but there was a lack of qualified shipmasters to transport them. This demand provided an opportunity for black mariners who were typically overlooked for many mariner positions. Hugh Mulzac would go down in history as the first African American shipmaster of the U.S. Merchant Marine. Mulzac was born in British West Indies in 1886. He received the majority of his mariner education there. Mulzac immigrated to the U.S. in 1918. By 1920 he passed the U.S. Shipmaster examination, earning the first ever master’s certificate issued to an African American. However he could not obtain a Shipmaster position because he was black. Mulzac would continue to work on ships over the next 20 years despite not being hired as a Shipmaster. He served as a mate on the SS Yarmouth of the Black Star line until the company went out of business in 1922. The Black Star Line was a shipping company founded by Marcus Garvey who also founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association. The purpose of the shipping line was to facilitate the transport of goods and eventually African American passengers throughout Africa. After Black Star Line ceased operations, Mulzac would continue to work aboard ships mostly in their steward departments. He became skilled in the area of food service management.
With the outbreak of World War II, Mulzac now had an opportunity to use his license and command a vessel. In 1942, he was named Shipmaster of the “Booker T. Washington” vessel. He insisted that his crew be integrated. The Booker T. Washington made 22 round trip voyages under Mulzac’s leadership. The end of the war brought about an end to Mulzac’s role as a Shipmaster. Mulzac, found him himself unemployed, the victim of discrimination. Mulzac unsuccessfully filed a lawsuit in 1948 against ship’s operators to try an obtain work. He also came under scrutiny by the government in the 1950’s due to his involvement with the labor movement. In 1960, at the age of 74, Mulzac obtained employment as a nightmate on a ship. He is remembered as “demanding task master” that taught his men, “how to be a qualified Officer”. Mulzac was also a self taught artist. 32 of his paintings were featured in a 1958 art exhibition at Countee Cullen Library in Manhattan. He died in 1971.
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