By Ron Franklin
LIBERTY SHIPS WERE THE cargo carrying workhorses of World War II. While they played an essential role in winning the war, some also helped in America’s ongoing struggle for racial equality.
A merchant fleet decimated by U-Boats
When the United States entered the Second World War in 1941, the packs of Germans U-Boats were already prowling off the East Coast of the country, ready to torpedo any cargo vessels carrying troops and war supplies to Europe. In January 1942 alone, at least 16 U.S. merchant ships were picked off while crossing Atlantic. The losses would accelerate.
Liberty ships to the rescue
Something had to be done to replace America’s dwindling shipping capacity; that’s where the Liberty ships made their mark. Built to a standard plan, and designed to be quickly and cheaply assembled, 2,711 such vessels would be constructed in just three years.
Ships named to honor prominent African Americans
Each Liberty ship was named for a prominent American. And in a move to encourage enthusiasm for the war among the nation’s black population, 17 of the new vessels would be named for African Americans. The first was the SS Booker T. Washington, in honour of the famous 19th Century civil rights leader. Construction began on August 19, 1942 at the California Shipbuilding Corporation’s facility near Long Beach. The vessel launched to great fanfare on Sept. 29.
The Booker T. made her mark not only by being the first U.S. registered merchantman to be named for a black person, but also because she had an African American as her skipper. Captain Hugh Mulzac had held a master’s license, qualifying him to captain a merchant ship, since 1920. But because of his skin colour, the only shipboard work he could find was as a cook.
But with the U. S. Maritime Commission desperate for qualified officers, Mulzac finally got his ship. Ironically, he initially turned down the offer. The Maritime Commission wanted him to sail with an all-black crew. Mulzac refused. “Under no circumstances will I command a Jim Crow vessel,” he told representatives of the federal agency.
The commission relented; the Booker T. Washington would sail with an integrated crew comprised of mariners representing 18 nationalities.
The Booker T. made her first trans-Atlantic crossing in January 1943. She would complete 22 round-trip voyages to Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Pacific. And she would soon be followed by other ships carrying the names of African Americans.
These included ships named for botanist and inventor George Washington Carver, orator Frederick Douglass, playwright Paul Laurence Dunbar, author and lawyer James Weldon Johnson, and abolitionist Harriett Tubman, among others.
Many wins, and only two losses
The Booker T. Washington made it safely through the war, and is credited with shooting down two enemy aircraft. Most of the other ships of the group of 17 had similar successful records; two were not as fortunate. The SS Frederick Douglass, launched in Baltimore in May of 1943, was lost in September of that year in the North Atlantic. Torpedoed by U-238, she was disabled but did not immediately sink. All hands were able to get away safely. The abandoned vessel was then sunk by U-645.
Also destroyed was the SS Robert L. Vann, named after the publisher of the Pittsburg Courier newspaper. Launched in October of 1943, she struck a mine on March 1, 1945 and sank. But again, all hands were saved.
These ships were a source of great pride to African Americans. Their significance in the fight against racial prejudice and discrimination was recognized not just in the black press, which provided extensive coverage of the launchings, but also by mainstream news media. Time Magazine, for example, commented on the impact of the launching of the Booker T. Washington, noting in its Oct. 5, 1942 issue that “The Booker T. will serve not only in the war of ocean transport but in the war against race discrimination.”
As far as black Americans were concerned, the 17 Liberty ships honoring the names of celebrated African Americans truly were a celebration of liberty.
For more in-depth information about Captain Hugh Mulzac and the SS Booker T. Washington, please see: Hugh Mulzac: First Black Captain of a WW2 Liberty Ship
Ron Franklin is a native of Chattanooga, TN. A graduate of the University of Tennessee, he has been an electrical engineer and manager for high-tech companies such as IBM and EDS. He now serves as the founding pastor of a church in Harrisburg, PA. Having grown up near the Chattanooga and Chickamauga battle sites, and now living within a stone’s throw of Gettysburg, he has a deep and abiding interest in the Civil War and often writes on topics related to that conflict. You can read more of his work at https://civilwarbsc.wordpress.com/articles-index/.