Capt. Hugh N. Mulzac, who fought years of racial discrimination, made history in 1942 when he became the first black man to command a U.S. merchant vessel when given command of the new Liberty ship Booker T. Washington.
A native of Union Island in the Caribbean, and after earning his second mate’s certificate at Swansea Nautical College in England, Mulzac worked aboard a banana boat sailing between Jamaica and Baltimore.
In 1910, he arrived in Baltimore and applied for a mate’s position at the Merchants & Miners Transportation Co., and was politely told that blacks were hired only to work in the steward’s department.
Grudgingly, he sailed on M & M line vessels as a cook, and with the outbreak of World War I, served as a deck officer on British and American ships.
Mulzac became a U.S. citizen and returned to Baltimore in 1918 where he was the first black in the city to sit for his master’s ticket, and despite a perfect score, was denied a command.
Discouraged, he established a wallpapering business while spending nearly two decades pressing his case through the National Maritime Union and the National Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots.
He finally achieved success when he was given command of the Booker T. Washington, the first U.S. vessel named for an African-American, and christened by opera star Marian Anderson.
Mulzac then successfully fought the War Shipping Board’s attempt to place an all-black crew aboard the ship in favor of an integrated one.
He completed 22 successful round-trip voyages in both the European and Pacific theaters, delivering 18,000 troops, while never losing a crew member from his ship.
With the end of the war, the ship was returned in 1947 to the Maritime Commission, and Mulzac, who never again held a sea command, died in 1949.