Though the ocean delivered millions of Africans into bondage, the sea also buoyed hopes. Enslaved at a waterfront plantation, young Frederick Douglass watched boats on the Chesapeake Bay. "This very bay shall yet bear me into freedom," he later wrote. Douglass, who worked in a Baltimore shipyard and fled slavery disguised as a sailor, became a leading abolitionist and a statesman. He is one of many blacks whose fates and fortunes were steeped in maritime history, a saga largely undocumented.
Mystic Seaport Museum's planned launch of an Amistad replica this spring, the formation of the Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation, and a spate of recent books hint at heightened interest in preserving this legacy.
African American seafarers and watermen were a rare breed and a diverse lot. They crabbed, hauled in menhaden, shrimped with hand-tied nets, tonged for oysters and speared whales. They manned lighthouses, lifesaving stations, warships, paddleboats, privateers and even pirate ships. With unusual mobility, African-American sailors navigated beyond the limited horizons of blacks ashore and served as conduits between far-flung black communities along the coasts and up and down the Mississippi River.
The waters did not wash away the color line, though. Thousands of blacks were sailors, but few commanded vessels. Those who did made waves. Massachusetts shipbuilder Paul Cuffe, a leading advocate of colonization, took 38 blacks to Sierra Leone on his ship in 1815. Captain Absalom Boston, a free black born in 1785, headed an all-black crew aboard the whaling schooner Industry and amassed substantial real estate holdings.
Emboldened by the desire for freedom, some blacks seized control of vessels. Aboard the slave ship L'Amistad, Joseph Cinque and 53 other Africans staged a mutiny, leading to the 1841 Supreme Court ruling that liberated them. In 1841, slaves revolted aboard the Creole and sailed to the Bahamas where they were freed by the British.
During the Civil War, African Americans launched perilous naval missions. Robert Smalls, was a slave and deckhand on the Planter, a cotton steamer leased to the Confederate Army to transport arms and provisions. In 1861, with seven black crewmen and their families aboard, Smalls steered the Planter past deadly mines and Confederate forts and into the Union fleet.
That same year, freeman William Tillman, a steward and cook on the S. J. Waring, a schooner captured by a rebel privateer, single-handedly killed the rebel crew and sailed the vessel to New York. The federal government gave Tillman a $6,000 reward.
The Union Navy admitted African Americans in 1861, almost a year before the army opened its ranks. Some former slaves risked their lives to enlist, swimming or rowing boats from plantations to Union ships anchored nearby. Eight African-American sailors won the U.S. Medal of Honor for their courage in battle.
Despite such valor, blacks were barred from the Navy after World War I, and not allowed to enlist again until 1932-- then only as messmen. In 1942, the Navy accepted volunteers for general service but prohibited them from going to sea. In 1949, Wesley Branch became the first black graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. And in 1996, Admiral J. Paul Reason became the Navy's first black four-star admiral.
African Americans also served honorably in the Coast Guard and its predecessor services, the Revenue Cutter Service, U.S. Lighthouse Service and U.S. Lifesaving Service. From 1887 to 1895, Captain Michael Healy commanded the cutter Bear, considered the greatest polar ship of its time. African Americans served at a several U.S. Lifesaving stations. Pea Island Station in North Carolina, however, had the service's only black keeper and all-black crew. Under the leadership of Pea Island Keeper Richard Etheridge, seven crewmen waded and swam to a shipwreck during an 1896 hurricane and saved nine survivors. Though white crewmen had received gold medals for less daring rescues, nearly a century passed before the crewmen gained official recognition.
For every tale of adventure and courage, thousands more black seafarers and watermen labored in obscurity, lured as much by opportunity as by love of the sea.
Carole Weatherford, the author of Sink or Swim: African-American Lifesavers of the Outer Banks, lives in High Point, N.C. Email her at email@example.com.
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