This 15-minute broadcast from January 2, 1943 comes from the Office of War Information (OWI) Collection at the Library of Congress, and reflects a unique and vital chapter of World War II. It features Captain Hugh Mulzac and members of the integrated crew of the “Liberty Ship,” he captained, the SS Booker T. Washington.
Though the American Armed Forces were officially segregated during World War II, a few of the “Liberty Ships” that carried troops and cargo overseas were captained by African-American officers leading integrated crews. Liberty Ships were part of the Merchant Marine, which is independent of the Armed Forces but which has served as an auxiliary unit in wartime since the Revolution.
Captain Hugh Nathaniel Mulzac was born on Union Island, in St. Vincent and the Grenadines in 1886 and served on ships around the world from 1907 on, earning an English Second Mate’s certificate by 1910. He served on the deck of several American commercial vessels during World War I and took advantage of a citizenship offer made to foreign nationals who had been so employed, becoming an American citizen in December, 1918. He served as an officer on the Yarmouth in Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line in 1920 and earned a master’s unlimited license in Baltimore in January, 1921, the first African-American ever to so qualify. Though he could now captain vessels of any size, he was denied any such opportunities in American shipping due to racism for the next twenty-two years, and typically had to work as a steward throughout the 20s and 30s.
When the United States entered World War II, he doubled his efforts to work in his hard won rating. After countless rebuffs and rejections, Captain Edward McCauley, Deputy Director of the Wartime Shipping Administration, met with him in person, and offered him the captain’s post aboard a Liberty Ship then being built, which would now be named the SS Booker T. Washington. The WSA, however, wanted him to recruit an all-black crew. Though his decades-long dream of a captain’s post was in sight, Mulzac later said of this moment:
How could I explain to Captain McCauley that, for possibly the noblest of reasons, he was preparing to launch a Jim Crow ship in the very name of democracy? There isn’t a colored officer anywhere in the world who would fail to recognize such an act as prima facie evidence of discrimination in America…
He told him:
‘…Captain, I appreciate your goodwill and your offer. And let me say that I can get enough colored sailors to man one ship, five ships or 10 ships. But it would, in my opinion, be wrong, for they would be Jim Crow ships. That’s what we’re fighting against, and for me to lend my name to such a project would be wrong.1’
To his surprise, a few weeks later, Captain McCauley formally requested that he serve as the ship’s captain, with a crew of his choosing which would be “mixed, consisting of colored and white officers and seamen.2”
The SS Booker T. Washington was launched on September 29, 1942, christened with a champagne bottle wielded by singer Marian Anderson with a crew including “Two Danes, a Turk, five Filipinos, a British Guianan, a Honduran, two British West Indians, a Norwegian, a Belgian, and sailors from thirteen states of the union[.]” Captain Mulzac later wrote.
His officers included two graduates of the navigation school he operated in Harlem in the early 1920s; Chief Mate Adolphus Folks and Second Mate Clifton Lastic, who would captain his own Liberty Ship the following year, one of four African-Americans to do so during the war.
Several members of this first crew are heard on this broadcast of “The American Labor Hour” recorded on January 2, 1943, following the ship’s return from its first mission, part of an OWI series broadcast via short wave in all theaters of the war, produced by the AFL, CIO and Railroad Brotherhoods, announced as “14 million trade unionists speak[ing] to the working men and women of the world.” Harry Alexander, a white engineer with more than twenty years of experience, says he’s never sailed on a vessel where the crew got along so well, adding “I have been on ships where the captains sit up nights thinking up things to do to irritate the crew, [Captain Mulzac] spends his time teaching us navigation…[W]e have two or three classes a week on the boat deck. One man in our navigation class is going to take his examination class for a mate’s license, and there will be others like him soon.” Joe Ring, a carpenter from Belgium, speaks of the plight of his family and other Belgians. Wireless operator Cecil Blackman, born in British Guyana, recalls working for Captain Mulzac in his school in Harlem. Second Mate Clifton Lastic, boatswain Bill Shepperd and gunner’s mate Adrian Herder also speak. At the end of the broadcast, Captain Mulzac declares “my crew stands together as a symbol of that democratic way of life for which we are all fighting.
”His ship eventually carried more than 18,000 soldiers overseas through waters filled with U-boats and under skies filled with Luftwaffe fighters, along with vital war supplies, and occasionally, Axis prisoners of war. Captain Mulzac eventually served five years as its skipper, but when racist and anti-union forces in American shipping reasserted themselves after the war, he spent the 1950s fighting to have his credentials restored, finally succeeding in 1960 and serving again on ships in his 70s as a night mate. His full story, and the full story of the SS Booker T. Washington, can’t be told in a single blogpost, but it can be found in his 1963 autobiography A Star to Steer By, and crew member John Beecher’s All Brave Sailors (New York. L.B. Fischer. 1945.) deals with the war years in depth as well.
You can search for more OWI broadcasts and other radio programs in the Library’s main online catalog and listen to them and other audio recordings in the Recorded Sound Research Center. Don’t hesitate to get in touch through Ask a Librarian if you have questions about recorded sound or moving image research at the Library of Congress.
1. Hugh Mulzac. A Star to Steer By. (New York. International Publishers. 1963. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes from Captain Mulzac are from this book.