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Captain Hugh Mulzac and the SS Booker T. Washington

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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 Mulzac,1946, Betsy Graves Reyneau, 1888 – 1964, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the Harmon Foundation

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”

Singer Marian Anderson christens the SS Booker T. Washington, at the Wilmington yards of the California Shipbuilding Corporation on September 29, 1942. Photograph by Alfred T. Palmer, Office of War Information Collection, Prints and Photographs Division

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.

Captain Hugh Mulzac and crew members, February 8, 1943 (L-R) Clifton Lastic, Second Mate; T. J. Young, Midshipman; E. B. Hlubik, Midshipman; Cecil Blackman, Radio Operator; T. A. Smith, Chief Engineer; Hugh Mulzac, Captain of the ship; Adolphus Folks, Chief Mate; Lt. H. Kruley; E. P. Rutland, Second Engineer; and H. E. Larson, Third Engineer.” Captain Mulzac is fourth from the left on the first row. February 8, 1943. National Archives.

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 Huerter 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.
2. Ibid.

Comments (12)

  1. If know, could the LOC provide the location of Captain Hugh N. Mulzac’s school in Harlem, New York City?

    • I’m sorry, but we don’t have that information. Capt. Mulzac mentions the school in his book “A Star to Steer By,” but does not give the address.

  2. I was wondering where this recording was found. I can find no information about the American Labor Hour radio show online, or the host. I don’t know if that information is available in the LOC, though. I also can’t find any mention of the show in Captain Mulzac’s book. Any info about this or the Booker T. Washington in general would be greatly appreciated.

    By the way, Adrian “Herder” is actually spelled Huerter (he was my uncle). Not a big deal though.

    • Thank you for the correction! The program is part of the Office of War Information Collection in the Recorded Sound Section of the National Audiovisual Conservation Center of the Library of Congress This is a very large collection of radio programming in many languages created by OWI for American troops and the people in allied and Axis-occupied nations during World War II. Most of these program were heard via shortwave overseas, not on standard American radio in the US. Relatively little has been written about specific OWI programs such as this one since the war, although OWI’s work was covered in the press during the war. This program was actually listed as “American Labor Show” in our databases:, but the correct title was definitely “American Labor Hour.” There may be further programs from this series in the OWI Collection, but they have not yet been copied. If you want to research this further, you can contact the Recorded Sound Reference Center at the Library of Congress: [email protected].

  3. I wish stories like this were more widely shared. It might help convince people that racism is senseless.

  4. I have nothing to add or say about this story, however I am truly blessed to have found out about the ss Booker T Washington and the captain and crew,great men all and deserve the accolades they earned.
    Thank you Smithsonian channel for pointing me to this story, not that it matters I’m white, and have nothing but respect for these people

  5. A heartfelt, full honor salute to those who served, endured, and commanded.

  6. Thank you for re releasing this broadcast. I have been spell bounded in hearing my grand uncle Hugh’s voice once again. His successful defiance of Jim Crow policies came 10 years before Rosa Parks refusal to move her seat on a segregated city bus. On the 100th anniversary of Uncle Hugh’s birth, former President Ronald Regan acknowledged the unjust discrimination Capt. Mulzac endured. Capt Mulzac’s example hastened the integration of the armed forces. Still lacking is Captain Mulzac’s place in the Smithsonian’s African American Museum of History and Culture in DC.

  7. My dad served as medical officer on the Booker T Washington in WW2, and I have his letters from that time. After Pearl Harbor he returned to Texas to train new MAC candidates — there was a huge need for them.

  8. An amazing story of strength and courage to fight for what is right. Another unsung hero of the war , A film should be made to honour his name .

  9. I was looking for any art work called Captain H. Mulzac – a Harbor scene but then I found this article and I thought maybe it was done from him and his ship. Wow what a very cool story glad I could find the story but not the art. Maybe it is in his book? Thanks for all the great information.

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