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Before They Were Famous

Photograph: The crew of The Booker T. Washington with the ship's mascot
The crew of The Booker T. Washington
with the ship’s mascot

Notable African-Americans Who Participated in this Country’s Marine Industry

This listing includes some prominent figures who have played major roles in shaping the United States the maritime industry and African-American History:

  • Crispus Attucks (1723-1770) First to die in the American Revolution Attucks was an ex-slave who escaped from slavery and became a merchant sailor to see the world and make a living. His home base of operations was Newport, Rhode Island.
  • Paul Cuffe (1759-1817) Ship owner and “Back to Africa” movement leader Cuffe was the owner of sloops, schooners, brigs and the 268-ton ship named ALPHA. He is famous for being the first African-American to repatriate African-Americans back to Africa. He founded the Friendly Society for the Emigration of Free Negroes to America.
  • James Forten (1766-1842) Patriot and abolitionist against slavery Forten was first a foreman and then owner of a very successful sail loft business. It is estimated that he amassed well over $100,000 from this business. He also was a fierce patriot for the United States. During the War of 1812, he helped recruit 2,500 African-Americans to help guard the city of Philadelphia against attacks when threatened by the British.
  • Frederick A. Douglass (1817-1895) Abolitionist against slavery, newspaper owner, and U.S. Minister to Haiti Douglass probably was the greatest spokesman for African-Americans during the 19th century. While still a slave, he was hired out to work as a ship caulker for William Gardner, an extensive shipbuilder at Fell’s Point in Baltimore, Maryland. Douglass worked as a caulker for 8 months.
  • Robert Smalls (1839-1915) Ship pilot, Civil War hero, and United States Congressman Smalls served as a ship’s pilot while a slave in the south. He gained fame when he and his fellow slave shipmates commandeered the confederate transport vessel PLANTER, sailed it out of the Charleston harbor and turned it over to Union forces. After the war he served as a member of the United States House of Representatives from the state of South Carolina from 1875-1887.
  • James Lewis (1832-1897) Civil War officer and federal official Lewis as a slave sailed up and down the Mississippi River as a steward. When the Civil War started he escaped joining Union forces where he was able to achieve the rank of Captain in the First Louisiana Volunteer Native Guards. After the War he became the first African-American in Louisiana to hold Federal appointive office when he was named to the post of United States Inspector of Customs in New Orleans.
  • Pickney Benton Stewart Pinchback (1837-1920) Governor, Lt. Governor, and Civil War officer P.B.S. Pinchback sailed up and down the Ohio, Missouri, and Mississippi Rivers as a cabin boy and steward prior to the Civil War. When the War started he joined the Union forces where he served as a Captain in the Louisiana Native Guards. After the War he entered politics in Louisiana where he was elected as Lt. Governor. He has the dubious distinction of being the first African-American to hold the Office of Governor of a state in the United States where he was elected acting governor for a period of 42 days in 1871 when the standing Governor of Louisiana was impeached.
  • Jan Ernst Matzeliger (1852-1889) Inventor Matzeliger sailed for two years as a sailor on merchant vessels. He is famous for inventing the world’s first functional shoe lasting machine. His invention revolutionized the shoe industry by allowing it to mass-produce shoes.
  • Granville T. Woods (1856-1910) Inventor and businessman Woods one of ithis country’s greatest inventors sailed on the British steamer IRONSIDES as an engineer in 1878. He earned during his lifetime 35 patents. His inventions included a steam boiler furnace, an incubator, the automatic air brake, and his most notable invention the induction telegraph, a system for communicating to and from moving trains.
  • Daniel Hale Williams (1858-1931) Heart surgeon Dr. Hale long before becoming a world famous physician was at one time a roustabout on a Great Lakes steamer. He is the first physician to conduct open heart surgery on a patient and have that patient survive the operation.
  • William Leisdesdorf (1810-1848) Millionaire businessman and shipping magnate Leisdesdorf was ship captain and owner of several vessels. An American diplomat he held dual citizenship as a Mexican and United States citizen. Because of his business prowess and connections, he was appointed as the American Consul by the United States when California was still part of Mexico. When he died, his estate was valued at $1,500,000.
  • Isaac Myers (1835-1891) Businessman and labor organizer Myers is noted for founding a shipyard that employed over 300 African-Americans in Baltimore, Maryland and for starting the first significant organized labor movement for African-Americans which was the Baltimore Caulker Trade Society.
  • Marcus A. Garvey (1887-1940) Mass movement leader Garvey led the largest mass movement organization of African-Americans in the history of this country. His organization — the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League — at one time had over 1,000,000 members. A key segment of his organization was his Black Star Shipping Line, which at one time, had the famous Hugh Mulzac as a merchantman on one of its vessels. Hugh Mulzac, if you recall, wound up sailing as the first African-American captain on the SS BOOKER T. WASHINGTON.
  • Claude McKay (1890-1948) Poet and writer McKay, one of this country’s gratest poets, sailed as a stoker on freighter so that he could make his way to England. McKay is noted for being one of the premier writers and poets during the Harlem Renaissance era.
  • Edward M. Bannister (1828-1901) Landscape painter Bannister one of this country’s premier landscape painters served as a cook on a coastal vessel during the early part of his life.
  • Ralph W. Ellison (1914-1995) Writer and novelist Ellison one of the greatest writers in American history sailed as a United States merchant mariner during World War II. He is most noted for his novel “Invisible Man” which garnered him the National Book Award in 1952 for fiction — making him the first African-American to win the coveted award.

Information was taken from the following sources: Great Negroes Past and Present by Russell L. Adams, World’s Great Men of Color by J.A. Rogers, Narratives of a Slave by Frederick Douglass.

Research by Jerome Davis, Maritime Administration’s Director, Office of Sealift Support

-All photos are used courtesy of the U.S. War Shipping Commission, the Maritime Administration,;
the National Archives and the U.S. Naval History & Heritage Command-

Last updated: Thursday, October 25, 2018