Hugh Mulzac

Hugh Nathaniel Mulzac (March 26, 1886 January 30, 1971) was an African-American member of the United States Merchant Marine. He earned a Master rating in 1918 which should have qualified him to command a ship, but this did not happen until September 29, 1942 because of racial discrimination.[1]

Hugh Nathaniel Mulzac
Captain Mulzac
Born(1886-03-26)March 26, 1886
DiedJanuary 30, 1971(1971-01-30) (aged 84)
Spouse(s)Marie Avis

Life and career

Early life

Hugh Nathaniel Mulzac was born March 26, 1886, on Union Island in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines[1] (SVG).[2] Hugh was born to Ada Roseline Donowa who was an accomplished pianist and a woman of pure African descent; Hugh's father, Richard Mulzac, was a mulatto planter and a builder of whaling ships and schooners. Hugh’s grandfather Charles Malzac (sic), was a white man and a native of St. Kitts W.I...[3] Mulzac/Malzac family were descended from a French Huguenot galley slave who escaped the sinking of the ship, ‘Notre Dame de Bonne Esperance” off the coast of Martinique in 1697.[4] Hugh attended the Church of England School in Kingstown, SVG which was headed by his maternal grandfather, the Rev. James Donowa, a former student of the Reverend Edward Nugent Bree (Mulzac, Burnham, and Welch 1963). Hugh had two older brothers Jonathon and Edward along with younger brothers Irvin, Lambi and James along with younger sisters Lavinia and Una.

Early career

Mulzac's life at sea started immediately after high school when he served on British schooners. He was sent to Swansea Nautical College in Wales to train for his ship masters license.[5] In 1918, Hugh Mulzac emigrated to the United States. Within two years he had earned his shipping master's certificate, the first ever issued to an African American.[6] He joined with Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and served as a Captain on the SS Yarmouth of the Black Star Line. However, disagreements with the UNIA lead to his resignation in 1921.[5]

For the next two decades, the only shipboard work Mulzac could get was in the steward's departments on several shipping lines.[7]

World War II

In 1942, Mulzac was offered command of the SS Booker T. Washington, the first Liberty ship to be named after an African-American. He refused at first because the crew was to be all black. He insisted on an integrated crew, stating, "Under no circumstances will I command a Jim Crow", and the authorities relented. With this, he became famous for being the first ever black captain, the first black man to obtains a ships masters license and the first black man ever to command a fully integrated vessel. Under his command, over 18,000 troops were transported around the world, and additionally "carrying vital war supplies such as tanks, aircraft and ammunition to the European front."[8][9]

Captain Hugh Mulzac also played a role in the National Maritime Union. The Union included a clause that stipulated that there should be no discrimination based on color, race, political creed, religion or national origin.

After the war

After the war, Mulzac could not regain a position as captain. In 1948 he unsuccessfully filed a lawsuit against the ship's operators. In 1950 he made a bid for Queens Borough President under the American Labor Party ticket. He lost the election, having gotten 15,500 votes.[5]

Due to his strong ties to the labor movement, he found himself blacklisted in the era of McCarthyism.[7] At the New York state election, 1958, he ran on the Independent-Socialist ticket for New York State Comptroller.

Mulzac was a self-taught painter, and in 1958, thirty-two of his oil paintings were put on exhibit at one man show in the Countee Cullen Library in Manhattan.[10] In 1960 a Federal Judge restored his seaman's papers and license, and at the age of 74 he was able to find work as a night mate.[5]

Captain Mulzac died in East Meadow, New York on January 30, 1971 at the age of 84.[11]

Personal life

On September 29, 1920, Hugh Mulzac married Miriam Aris, a native of Jamaica; they would have four children; Joyce, Una, Claire and Hugh Jr. Their daughter, Una Mulzac, was the founder of a prominent Harlem-based political and Black power-oriented bookstore, Liberation Bookstore.[12] Hugh's nephew, John Ira Mulzac Sr., was a pilot with the Tuskegee Airmen.


  1. "African-Americans in the U.S. Merchant Marine and U.S. Maritime Service". U.S. Maritime Service Veterans. 2003-11-17. Retrieved 2007-02-24.
  2. Mulzac, H., et al. (1963). A Star to Steer by. New York, International Publishers.
  3. Nicholls, H. A (1891) Diary of a Trip through the Grenadines, Harvard University Herbaria,22 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge, MA
  4. Serres, E., et al. (1985). Déportés pour la foi : l'Assemblée de Puech-Martel (Nîmes) et les Quatre relations d'Etienne Serres, Laffitte reprints, Marseille, ISBN 2734801493
  5. Rydell, Roy (2000-02-16). "Maritime association honors Black seamen". People's Weekly World. Long View Publishing Co. Archived from the original on 2007-08-06. Retrieved 2007-02-25.
  6. this could not be refused with a perfect score of 100 "First Negro Skipper" Check |url= value (help). Time Magazine. 1942-10-05. Retrieved 2007-02-25.
  7. "WORLD WAR II AND HUGH MULZAC". United States Maritime Administration. Retrieved 2007-02-24.
  8. "Seafaring Pioneer Hugh Mulzac Born". Retrieved 28 January 2017.
  9. Faria, Norman (1 February 2010). "A tribute to Capt. Hugh Mulzac". People's World. Retrieved 28 January 2017.
  10. "Mulzac Art On Exhibit At Library". New York Amsterdam News. 1958-03-01. p. 11. ProQuest 225928025.
  11. "Census--Capt. Mulzac, 1st Black Merchant [mariner] with Title, Dies" Jet, February 18, 1971, 12
  12. Douglas Martin, "Una Mulzac, Bookseller With Passion for Black Politics, Dies at 88", New York Times, Feb. 5, 2012.

Further reading

  • Mulzac, Hugh (1963). A Star to Steer By as told to Louis Burnham and Norbal Welch. International Publishers. ASIN B00M6APYTO.
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