Honors for Hugh Mulzac, the captain who fought Jim Crow, Hitler, and McCarthy
Capt. Hugh Mulzac, center, with members of the National Maritime Union at an anti-racism protest in the 1940s. | Daily Worker Photo Collection / Tamiment Library NYU / People's World Archives

BALTIMORE—“Hugh Mulzac opened my eyes to another part of the sea…he opened my eyes to another part of life in this country, to racism,” Jeremy Hope, International Vice President of the Masters, Mates, and Pilots Union told over 200 World War II Merchant Marine veterans, their families, and union members here for a Sept. 24 event at the Maritime Conference Center.

Capt. Mulzac depicted at the helm of the S.S. Booker T. Washington in a 1943 cartoon. | Artist: Charles Henry Alston / U.S. National Archives

In 1942, at the age of 56, Mulzac became the first African-American man of Caribbean descent to captain a U.S. Merchant Marine ship, the S.S. Booker T. Washington—six years prior to the formal end of segregation in the U.S. armed forces.

During WWII, Mulzac would captain various Liberty ships and make 22 round-trip voyages, transporting 18,000 soldiers and tons of wartime armaments to both the European and the Pacific theaters of war. In all, 250,000 Merchant Marines served with honor in WWII.

Mulzac wasn’t just a WWII hero, though, he was “a hero of the civil rights and labor movement,” Hope told those gathered in Baltimore.

Self-critically, Hope noted that his union hadn’t always championed diversity and civil rights. “We enforced institutional racism and discrimination,” he added. But Mulzac knew the power of unity. Hope recalled that despite the racism he faced, Mulzac refused to ever cross seafaring picket lines.

“He stood with our union, though he was refused membership. He refused to be a scab,” Hope continued.

To Mulzac’s descendants—many of whom were in attendance—Hope said: “We’re sorry!”

The union and veterans then presented the Mulzac family with a plaque, as well as an original oil painting of the Booker T. Washington, the integrated ship Mulzac captained in 1942.

On the ship’s first voyage, Mulzac mused, “What sweeter triumph could a man wish for himself, his race, and his country.”

The gathering was part of the 2020-21 National Convention of the American Merchant Marine Veterans (AMMV), which culminated in the Sept. 24 Congressional Gold Medal celebration and reception dinner in tribute to Captain Mulzac. Drafts of the Congressional Gold Medal were also displayed and will be presented in early 2022.

Left photo: Capt. Don Marcus, International President of the Masters, Mates, and Pilots Union, second from left, presents a plaque honoring Hugh Mulzac. Right photo: Jeremy Hope, International Vice President of the Masters, Mates, and Pilots Union, shakes hands with Henry Mulzac, Hugh Mulzac’s nephew. | Photographer: Donna McCormick / Courtesy of International Organization of Master, Mates, and Pilots

Henry Mulzac, Hugh Mulzac’s nephew, spoke on behalf of the family and noted that Captain Mulzac sacrificed “himself, his career, and his family at a crucial point in U.S. history.

“He helped to usher in the integration of the U.S. armed forces,” Henry Mulzac added. “He refused to be part of a Jim Crow program.”

Captain Donald Marcus, International President of the Masters, Mates, and Pilots Union, told the assembled veterans and their families that this “was a long time coming” and that he was “thrilled to honor Hugh Mulzac.”

Connecting the war-time struggle against fascism to the postwar fight against McCarthyism, Captain Marcus added, “Mulzac not only fought racial injustice, he fought fascism, and he fought McCarthyism” after the war.

Capt. Hugh Mulzac holds tight to the American flag while crumbling the racist banner of the Confederacy. | Daily Worker Photo Collection / Tamiment Library NYU / People’s World Archives

During the late 1940s and early 1950s, radical trade unionists—many of whom were Communists or refused to make a political break with the Communists they worked with in the labor movement—were hounded out of the trade unions they had founded and helped build. Mulzac’s National Maritime Union was a tragic victim of what became known as the Red Scare in labor, where unions representing over one million members were purged from the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) or absorbed by the more conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL) unions less willing to challenge racist discrimination and oppression.

Often, those most militantly committed to anti-racism and equality, such as Mulzac’s NMU comrade Ferdinand Smith, were called before Congressional committees, accused of being Communists, and unceremoniously ousted from their unions; Smith was eventually deported.

By the late 1940s, Mulzac was blacklisted, once again unable to command a ship due to racist political repression. Shortly thereafter, he retired from seafaring and ran for office on the American Labor Party ticket, then considered a so-called “Communist front.” The U.S. government also revoked his seaman’s papers and license, though by 1960 they were reinstated.

According to Captain Marcus, Mulzac was “a great, great gift to the labor movement, and to the American people.”

The AMMV’s convention coincides with plans by International Publishers of New York to re-release Mulzac’s long out-of-print autobiography, A Star to Steer By, with a new foreword and epilogue, as well as previously unpublished photos of Mulzac. Look for it in late 2021 or early 2022.

Members of the Mulzac family accept a painting of the S.S. Booker T. Washington. | Photographer: Donna McCormick / Courtesy of International Organization of Master, Mates, and Pilots

Margaret Stevens, author of Red International, Black Caribbean: Communists in New York City, Mexico and the West Indies, 1919-1939, who is working with the Mulzac family and International Publishers on the republication, said Mulzac “was a pioneer of the struggle for integration through multiracial unity. The reprinting of A Star to Steer By couldn’t come at a better time.”

Mulzac’s autobiography is expected to be back in print by late this year or early next year.

Born on the island of Union in the Caribbean, part of the nation of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, on March 26, 1886, Mulzac died on Jan. 31, 1971.

The AMMV’s Congressional Gold Medal Dinner was a wonderful tribute to Mulzac and all Merchant Marines who fought against fascism abroad and Jim Crow and McCarthyism domestically.


Tony Pecinovsky
Tony Pecinovsky

Tony Pecinovsky is the author of "Let Them Tremble: Biographical Interventions Marking 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA" and author/editor of "Faith In The Masses: Essays Celebrating 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA." His forthcoming book is titled "The Cancer of Colonialism: W. Alphaeus Hunton, Black Liberation, and the Daily Worker, 1944-1946." Pecinovsky has appeared on C-SPAN’s "Book TV" and speaks regularly on college and university campuses across the country.