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January 16, 1964, Vol. IX, No. 13
Trailblazing Captain Opens Art Show Here
By Susan Goodman
Hugh Mulzac during World War II became the first Afro-American — he dislikes the term “Negro” — to skipper an American merchant marine vessel. Mulzac, who is now 78, took up painting shortly before leaving the bridge of the Booker T. Washington, a Liberty ship commissioned with much fanfare in 1942. He will exhibit his work this month at Gallery 85 on Christopher Street.
Mulzac, a somewhat severe man, sparing of words but strong in his views, speaks with a trace of his native West Indian lilt. He told The Voice his pictures are “primitive” in the sense that he’d never received formal training. “I want each of my paintings to tell a story, to have life in it. I don’t see too many other paintings. This modern art — I hate to look at it,” he said. The Captain disavowed any interest in formal aesthetic considerations.
Done with the aim of “showing how the people live in the different countries,” Mulzac’s pictures depict such things as the arrest of AWOL soldiers, West Indian market streets, or a still Naples harbor with submarines lurking beneath. One oddly surrealistic canvas shows a fiddler playing what the Captain termed a “lone string,” the cleavage in a woman’s buttocks.
All the people in Mulzac’s work are dark-colored which, he said, is deliberate. “In the U.s. all that you see is white, so I thought I’d change that thing.” The captain’s posture was formally erect as he spoke, his thin face expressionless, but a warm light crept into his eyes…
Born in 1886 in Unton, British West Indies — a plantation island owned by his Scots grandfather and African grandmother — he led a Tom Sawyerish early life between bouts at a British school and church. At the age of 18 he ran away to sea aboard a Norwegian ship which landed in North Carolina. It was there, according to his autobiography, “A Star to Steer By,” published last year by International Publishers, that he first encountered the “barbarous customs of our northern neighbors.”
He roamed the oceans, got his mate’s license at an English navigation school, and, in World War I, was allowed on the bridge of an American ship. In 1918 he became a citizen and successfully sat for his master’s ticket, an event which occasioned a front page spread in the Baltimore Sun. The world made safe for democracy, America returned to her barbarous customs and the Captain was sent to the cook’s galley.
Aside from a brief fling as chief officer with the British-registered Black Star line, the hope of the ill-starred Garveyite movement, he remained a steward until the next war. Pearl Harbor found him frying eggs for the society rich aboard a luxury liner.
The shortage of trained seamen — some 5000 men in the merchant marine died during the first year of the war — and Roosevelt’s fair-employment policy changed the picture. In 1942 Mulzac was given the specially commissioned Liberty ship, Booker T. Washington, christened by Marian Anderson.
He flatly refused a proferred “jim crow” crew and finally got an inter-racial one composed of sailors from eight nations and 13 American states. One of those to sail with him was Irwin Rosenhouse, at whose Village gallery the captain’s work will be exhibited.
“The Booker T. was the only ship I’ve ever been on which had a sense of purpose from the top down,” Rosenhouse told The Voice. he recalled the classes in seamanship, in art, and in international affairs, as well as the tongue-lashing he’d received when he chose to stand watch on a stormy night inside. “On the bridge we called Mulzac ‘captain,’ but when he came to union meetings we called him ‘brother.’ Beefs between the officers and the men could be settled on that ship,” Rosenhouse said.
History repeated itself when the war ended. When Mulzac entered the hospital for a leg operation, his ship was drydocked. When he got out, he found there were no jobs either for him or for any of the other colored officers who’d made their way up through the ranks in World War II. In recent years the situation has improved somewhat, according to Mulzac, as there are now a few Negro mates — though no chief officers or captains — in the American merchant marine.
Mulzac’s case was complicated by the fact that he was blacklisted as a “security risk” during the McCarthyite era. It took 10 years before the federal courts finally ordered his papers reinstated. Mulzac, in the meantime, had left the sea forever, as had most of the other 2000 blacklisted men.
Mulzac moved ashore to Queens, where he ran unsuccessfully for Borough President on the American Labor Party ticket in 1950. He continued the painting he’d started on the last voyage of the Booker T., and he has exhibited his work at the ACA and IFI galleries.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]