Saturday, December 26, 2009

Misunderstood Mariners: Hugh Malzac

Ever since 15-year-old powder boy James Forten fought aboard the privateer Royal Louis in the American Revolution, African Americans have served in the country's merchant marine. But it was not until 150 years later that an African American -- Hugh Malzac --rose to the rank of Master.

Malzac was born in St. Vincent and the Grenadines in 1886 and went to sea immediately after high school, eventually earning his mate's license. He immigrated to the United States in 1916, and within two years had passed the exams for his master's license, the first African American ever to do so. Having his license was one thing, finding a shipowner that would hire him as captain was another. Malzac spent the next two decades working mainly in the steward's department. He was also active in the labor movement in the 1930s, an activity that would come to haunt him in the two decades later.

With the outbreak of World War Two, Malzac lobbied hard on behalf of Negro mariners, and was eventually rewarded with command of the Liberty ship Booker T. Washington in 1942. It was something Malzac had worked for for two decades, but he almost turned it down because the crew was to be all black. Eventually, the ship's operators gave in and agreed to integrate the crew. Malzac took command, recalling later:
Everything I ever was, stood for, fought for, dreamed of, came into focus that day... The concrete evidence of the achievement gives one's strivings legitimacy, proves that the ambitions were valid, the struggle worthwhile. Being prevented for those twenty-four years from doing the work for which I was trained had robbed life of its most essential meaning. Now at last I could use my training and capabilities fully. It was like being born anew.
For the next five years he delivered troops and supplies to both theaters of the war and the occupation. In 22 trips, the Booker T. Washington transported 18,000 troops.

After the war, the ship's operators had their revenge and Malzac again couldn't get command of a ship. Things got worse in the next few years, as he lost both his seaman's papers due to the Red Scare of the 1950s and a run for public office. Eventually, a judge restored his papers, but Malzac never commanded a ship again, instead settling for night mate work until the end of his career. He died in 1971.

Time magazine's October 1942 account of Malzac taking command of the Booker T. Washington can be found on it's website here.

Malzac wrote a book about his experiences, A Star To Steer By, published in 1963.

For more on African Americans in the World War II-era Merchant Marine, click here.

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