Hugh Mulzac: A great Vincentian
by Maxwell Haywood
Part I of II
The month of March is our time to highlight and focus on our heritage and heroes. Many people have been calling for Hugh Mulzac to be honored with the title of National Hero. Hugh Mulzac was born in 1886 in St. Vincent and the Grenadines on Union Island. Before he died on January 31, 1971, he made history in the United States.
His overall achievements were very outstanding. In 1918, Hugh Mulzac became the first black man to achieve a Master’s seaman license in the United States. He was the first black seaman in Baltimore to pass the exams for a master’s license. He also was an outstanding trade union leader.
Furthermore, he became a significant part of Marcus Garvey’s movement for black people’s independence and liberation. Mulzac promoted in words and action the need for black people to acquire skills and knowledge in order to break down the barriers of discrimination.
First Black man
He was the first Black man to renew his master license in Tampa, Florida. The inspector who renewed his license said to him: “I don’t mind telling you that you’re the first Negro in history to have his master’s license renewed in the port of Tampa”.
Hugh Mulzac was an integral part of the workers’ struggles to form the powerful National Maritime Union (NMU) in the late 1930s in the United States. The creation of the NMU was history making. According to Mulzac, what was “most important for me, was the inclusion of a clause in the constitution providing that there should be no discrimination against any union member because of his race, color, political creed, religion, or national origin. This was a milestone in the history of the waterfront, and it is to the lasting honor of the NMU that, like the ILWU among shoreside workers, it was the first maritime union to establish this basic principle and to enforce it.”
During World War II, he operated one of the best run ships named Booker T Washington, which carried resources for soldiers who fought against Hitler’s Nazi army. Mulzac explained it this way: “It is understandable that for the first few trips I was not without certain apprehensions …. I was subject to certain pressure that a white skipper didn’t have …. The slightest incident would be magnified many times over, and I had to be especially sharp and cautious”. He was so successful as a Captain of his ship that experiences of those who came into contact with his ship led them to show high respect to Mulzac. For example, a group of soldiers who did experience the Booker T. Washington had this to say to him: “As long as there are soldiers to talk and pass on their experiences, the Booker T. Washington will live. These simple acts of yours will reach around the world, told and retold as an example of the spirit of true brotherhood.
Please accept our thanks …we will not forget.”
He had many encounters with race, class and other social injustices. As part of the working or laboring class and belonging to the black race, Hugh Mulzac experienced many obstacles against which he fought. From the time he set foot in the United States, he was greeted by the ugly and evil practice of racism against black people. He confronted racism head on and never got discouraged. He never lost his dignity. Instead, it made him stronger and more determined to achieve his goals. He also experienced overt racism in Australia, especially at the hands of Government institutions such as the Board of Trade at that time.
Because he was black, he confronted racism when he tried to find work in the USA as a seaman during WW I. Even though he was a worker, he was prevented from joining a trade union in the United States. According to Hugh Mulzac: “In the United States the problem was different. Whatever services the union provided I had no way of finding out – their doors were barred against me”.
Garvey hired Mulzac
These early experiences with racism made him decide to join the great Pan-African leader Marcus Garvey and his shipping business. Garvey hired Mulzac as captain on one of the Black Star Line ships named the Yarmouth.
He later became disillusioned with Garvey’s business because as he put it: “Mr. Garvey was a great organizer but a poor businessman…The executive positions in the company were staffed by opportunists and relatives from all walks of life except the shipping industry.”
But his experience with Marcus Garvey’s enterprise strengthened his belief in the idea of such an enterprise. He stated: “While the Black Star Line still operated its very existence stimulated a number of associated enterprises, including one of my own. Even after my discouraging experience on the Yarmouth I still hoped Marcus Garvey’s bold plan would succeed. I was caught up with the vision of the “Black Fleet,” and saw it as the route to the full development of coloured men’s talent, job equality at home and abroad, and the renaissance of Africa.” In his Autobiography, Mulzac described how the bankruptcy of the Black Star Line brought about much disillusionment in the black community.
l Continued next week