Hugh Mulzac was born March 26, 1886, on Union Island in Saint Vincent Grenadines, in the British West Indies. As soon as he graduated high school, he began working on British merchant vessels. He eventually earned his mate’s license from Swansea Nautical College in Great Britain. Shortly thereafter, he reached the rank of mate.
As World War I (WWI) progressed, Mulzac worked as a ship’s officer on British and American ships. As the war neared its end in 1918, he migrated to the U.S. He earned his citizenship later that year. Just two years later in 1920, Mulzac became the first Black person to pass the shipping master’s exam.
Later that same year (1920), Mulzac joined Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). His seafaring experience landed him the position of chief officer of the SS Yarmouth, a vessel that belonged to the UNIA. In 1921, Mulzac resigned from his position with the UNIA because he did not wholeheartedly agree with Garvey’s organization.
SS Booker T. Washington
20 years following his resignation from the UNIA, Mulzac faced vehement racial discrimination in the shipping industry. Despite his previous experience, the only positions that were open to him were steward positions. In 1942, however, the U.S. Maritime Commission offered him the opportunity to command the first Liberty ship, the SS Booker T. Washington.
Initially, Mulzac declined the opportunity. Commission policies stated that a Black commander could only command an all-Black crew. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other Black organizations protested the policies. The Commission changed its policies and Mulzac commanded an integrated crew from 1942-1947.
With a multitude of Liberty ships under his command, Mulzac led 22 round trips in total. He commanded over 18,000 soldiers, leading them to the war theaters in Europe and the Pacific. Once he completed his final assignment on a Liberty ship, Mulzac attempted to command privately-owned commercial vessels but was denied once again because of his race.
Mulzac then retired from seafaring and entered the world of politics. In 1950, he joined the American Labor Party (ALP). He ran for president of the organization but lost. With the U.S. now part of the Cold War, his affiliation with the ALP led to him being blacklisted by shipping companies. His seaman’s papers and license were also revoked by the U.S. government.
In 1960, a federal judge ruled that Mulzac’s seaman’s documents and license be reinstated. At that time, the 75-year-old mariner found work as a seaman once more. Hugh Mulza later died in 1971, in New York City. He was 85 years old.
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