Black History Month 2015
Prolific African Americans in Maritime History,
Society, and Industry
The Origins of Black History Month
Dr. Carter G. Woodson
Founded by NAACP leader, historian, and educator Dr. Carter G.
Woodson in 1926, “Negro History Week” originated as a way to bring
the contributions of African Americans into the public’s historical
“We should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in history.
What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the
history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious
- Dr. Carter G. Woodson on the founding Negro History Week,
February was selected due to its coincidence with the birthdays of
two men who fought for abolition: Abraham Lincoln, and Frederick
Negro History Week ultimately became Black History Month in
African Americans would often find better
treatment in the seafaring industry than
traditional shore-side jobs due to the skilled
nature of the position. Popular positions included
fishermen, watermen, ship repairmen, boat
builders, stevedores, and merchant seamen.
The ability to travel and work aboard ships
permitted African American sailors greater
freedoms than those found ashore.
The mobility of African American seafarers
additionally allowed them to spread the anti-
slavery message through a variety of ports, and
also assist in the escape of fugitive slaves.
African Americans in Maritime History
Privateersman also known as “King
Prominent African American leader
in Boston after the War of 1812.
African American seamen like
Crafus filled almost 20% of berths
during the War of 1812 and were
integral to the success of the
United States against the British.
Sources: Bolster, 1997; Afro-American Red Star 119(30)
Captain George Henry
Although enslaved, Henry rose to the ranks of
Captain for his service throughout the
Chesapeake Bay during the antebellum period.
Commander of cargo schooners.
Proficient navigator along the shallows of
Maryland’s bayside shores.
Source: Black Hands, Blue Seas; Bolster, 1997
Born a slave, Smalls became adept at
navigation through South Carolina waters at
a young age.
Already considered a pilot and waterman,
Smalls became a hero of the Civil War when
he commandeered the Confederate gunboat,
PLANTER, and escaped with a crew of slaves
through the Union blockade, immediately
surrendering the vessel to Union forces.
Served as a congressman from South
Carolina during the Reconstruction.
Source: Black Hands, Blue Seas; Bolster, 1997
Captain Richard Etheridge
Captain Etheridge was a Union Army veteran and the first African
American to fully command a life-saving station in the United
States in 1879.
Notably, his station’s crew was entirely African American as well.
Rigorously trained his men in preparation for life-saving
situations at the Pea Island Life-Saving Station in North Carolina.
Rescued the full complement from the wreck of the E.S. NEWMAN
in 1896 – nine adults, and the Captain’s three-year old child.
Received the Gold Life-Saving Medal from the Coast Guard
posthumously in 1996 for his valor and success during the E.S.
Source: Wright, 2000
Matthew A. Henson
First African American explorer to the Arctic.
Worked aboard a steamship as a cabin boy in his
Trekked with Robert E. Peary on the 1909 U.S.
expedition to the North Pole.
Posthumously awarded the Hubbard Medal in
2000, the highest honor from the National
Source: Black Hands, Blue Seas
Teacher, conductor, and composer originally from the U.S.
Virgin Islands. He became the first African American
bandmaster of the U.S. Navy in 1917.
Set precedence and encouragement for the first fully
integrated Navy band in 1942.
Served during WWI and WWII.
“A bandmaster must have confidence in his general ability and
in his knowledge of the music he handles. He not only must
know, but also must know that he knows. In other words, a
leader not only must know music, but also must have
confidence in his ear, in his rhythmic precision. Moreover, the
bandmaster needs to be more than a leader; he must be a
teacher as well.”
-Alton Augustus Adams, Sr.
Alton Augustus Adams, Sr.
LT Joseph C. Jenkins
LT Clarence Samuels
First African Americans to
serve in the U.S. Coast
Guard, beginning in the
Admitted into the USCG
ranks a full year before the
Source: Nalty, 2003
LT Clarence Samuels & LT Joseph C. Jenkins
LT Harriet Ida Pickens and ENS Frances Eliza Willis
Graduates from the final class of
the Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s
School at Northampton,
Massachusetts in December 1944.
First African American Women
Accepted for Volunteer Emergency
Service (WAVES) commissioned in
the U.S. Navy.
Source: Nalty, 2003
Melvin G. Williams Sr. and
Melvin G. Williams Jr.
Source: US Navy
Master Chief Melvin G. Williams Sr., USN (Ret.),
served for 27 years aboard aircraft carriers,
submarines, and surface ships. He has been awarded
the Meritorious Service Medal and six Good Conduct
Vice Admiral Melvin G. Williams Jr., USN (Ret.), is a
1978 graduate of the Naval Academy and served 32
years in the Fleet, submarines, and Joint assignments.
He has received both military and civic awards for
Authors of book, Navigating the Seven Seas. Describes
the leadership experiences and provides inspirational
anecdotes from father-son careers in the Navy.
Became the first African American port captain in
An ex-stevedore, Osborne was promoted through the
ranks of the International Longshoremen’s and
Warehouse Union (ILWU) to the position of Port
Specifically worked with the Pacific Far East Lines,
Inc. in San Francisco, California.
Source: Ebony, 13(7)
The U.S. Navy’s First Black Admiral.
Overcame cultural and institutional obstacles
throughout his career.
Authored book, Trailblazer which follows his career.
He was a pioneer in the Navy for being the first
African American to be commissioned as an officer in
the USN, the first to command a Navy ship and fleet,
and first to become an admiral.
The USS GRAVELY (DDG 107) was commissioned in
2010 as tribute to his honorific service.
Source:PHC Billings. U.S. NHHC
Vice Admiral Samuel L. Gravely
RADM Evelyn Fields
First African American and first woman to
serve as the Director of the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
(NOAA) Commissioned Officer Corps.
Confirmed to the position by President
Clinton in 1999.
NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps is
considered the “seventh uniformed service”
of the U.S.
Source: Black Hands, Blue Seas
Captain Gail Harris
• First African-American woman to serve as a Naval
Intelligence Officer in 1973, and became the highest-ranking
African-American woman in the Navy when she retired in
• She headed the Defense Department intelligence support
for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, was the first African American
woman to be an instructor at the Armed Forces Air
Intelligence Training Center.
Her memoir, A Woman's War: The Professional and Personal
Journey of the Navy's First African American Female
Intelligence Officer, was published in 2010 and recounts her
career in the Navy, including the obstacles she had to
overcome as a black woman.
Source: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images
Admiral Michelle Howard
Confirmed as vice chief of naval operations in December
2013, making her the first female four-star admiral, and
the first African-American woman with any four-star rank.
She graduated from the Naval Academy in 1982, the third
class which admitted women, and in 1999 became the first
African-American woman to command a ship, the dock
landing ship Rushmore.
In 2009, she took command of Combined Task Force 151,
the counter-piracy strike force that coordinated the rescue
of Captain Richard Phillips, which was recently
dramatized in the movie “Captain Phillips”.
First African American graduate of SUNY Maritime College,
class of 1950 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Marine
Engineering and a minor in Naval Architecture.
Continued on to the City College of New York and Boston
College for graduate work in Engineering and Business.
Formed Ashby International, Ltd., of which he became
President and developed projects related to power
generation, desalination, and industrial work worldwide.
Was an involved member of the Organization of Black
Maritime Graduates (OBMG) to promote minorities within
the maritime industry.
The Carl F. Burnett Academic Achievement Scholarship
Award was created in his honor to laud the applicant with the
Carl Frederick Burnett
After high school, Branford worked for three years in
the United States Merchant Marine aboard cargo ships
between East Coast ports, Europe, and South America.
In 1948, he was accepted at SUNY Maritime College and
graduated in the class of 1952 with a Bachelor of Science
degree in Marine Engineering, a Third Assistant
Engineers license, and commissioning as an Ensign in
the U.S. Naval Reserve.
First African American Sales Executive at Pan American
With business partner, Wilbert Boyce, founded the
Double Eagle Steam Ship Company in 1977, which
serviced routes in the North Atlantic between East
Coast and Northern European ports.
Walter Womack Branford
Member of the Class of 1960. Watts was a
recipient of an Air Force scholarship. His area
of study was Maritime Engineering.
After graduation, he had a successful career as
a nuclear submarine engineer.
Later in his career, he was appointed the
position of Head Instructor of Maritime
Engineering at the Maritime Institute of
Technology and Graduate Studies.
Captain Howard Wyche
A member of the Class of 1979. He graduated from
SUNY Maritime with a Bachelor of Science in Marine
In 1980, he became the first African American accepted
as an apprentice into the Pilots’ Association for the Bay
and River Delaware. Later in 1984, Wyche became a
partner in the Pilots’ Association, making him one of the
first African American Marine Pilots in the United
In 1994, along with five other SUNY Maritime graduates,
he co-founded the Organization of Black Maritime
In 2014, Captain Wyche was inducted into SUNY
Maritime’s Heritage Hall.
Captain Robert K. Cook III
A member of the Class of 1980.
He graduated with dual degrees
in Physical Oceanography and
After graduation, Captain Cook
embarked on a career with the
Military Sealift Command
Atlantic where he became the
UnRep Department Head
onboard. Later, he served on the
USNS Harkness where he
received the National Unit
In 1984, he became a partner in
the Pilots’ Association for the
Bay and River Delaware. He is
one of the first African
American Marine Pilots in the
In 1994, along with five other
SUNY Maritime graduates, he
co-founded the Organization of
Black Maritime Graduates.
In 2014, Captain Cook was
inducted into SUNY Maritime’s