Hugh Mulzac (March 26, 1886–1971) 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.
Born on March 26, 1886 on Union Island in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines,his life at sea started right after high school when he served on British schooners.
With a mate’s license from Swansea Nautical College he rose to the rank of mate before immigrating to the United States in 1918. Within two years he had earned the first ever master’s certificate ever issued to an African American. In 1920 Mulzac joined Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). He served as a mate on the SS Yarmouth of the Black Star Line in Harlem on 135th Street with Marcus Garvey until that line went out of business in 1922.
For the next two decades the only shipboard work Mulzac could get was in the steward’s departments on several shipping lines.
Mulzac was finally promoted to the rank of captain, but he refused the offer because the rank was attached to the condition that he would serve above an all black crew. Mulzac then became a cook for another twenty-two years until he was finally provided the opportunity he sought in World War II.
In 1942 he was offered command of the SS Booker T. Washington, the first Liberty ship to be named after an African-American and World-renowned singer Marian Anderson (left) christened. 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 vessel.” The Merchant Marine finally gave in and agreed to an integrated crew, and he took command from 1942–1947, making 22 round trip voyages and transported over 18,000 soldiers without a single loss of life.
After the war, Mulzac again couldn’t get command of a ship. In 1948 he unsuccessfully filed a lawsuit against the ship’s operators. Then 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.
Due to his strong ties to the labor movement, he found himself blacklisted in the era of McCarthyism. 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. 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.
Mulzac’s daughter, Una Mulzac, was the founder of a prominent Harlem-based political and Black power-oriented bookstore, Revolution Bookstore.
Captain Mulzac died in 1971.
e was mentioned in the episode “A Nugget of History” in the television series The Suite Life of Zack and Cody on the Disney Channel.
Thank you N. Shoemaker.