African American Maritime collage w-Olivia Hooker.jpg

"Before the turn of the twentieth century, maritime industries provided the greatest opportunities for Black employment and investment in America. Between the Revolution and the Civil War, more African Americans were employed in the maritime trades than in any other industry. In New England, the representation of Black men on shipboard was proportionally far greater than in the general population. African Americans were represented on the vast majority of the region's vessels as employees, investors or owners."  From summary of 1990 book "African Americans in the Maritime Trades, a Guide to Resources in New England."

PortSide NewYork's African American Maritime Heritage program will encompass stories of black achievement, struggles against the sea, struggles against racism, and aspects of daily life and work (it’s not all derring-do) around the country. This part of the African American story is largely forgotten, even though some of these stories and people were famous in their day.

PortSide is launching this program because these are fascinating and relevant WaterStories all Americans should know. 

PortSide is also launching this program to engage black residents of Red Hook who are the majority in our neighborhood but not very present on the waterfront or in maritime spaces. That is a pattern in many parts of NYC where maritime activities are very white spaces.  For more about our intentions, see our blog post: Our African American Maritime Heritage program: Why, what, who

1st event: the 1st annual History Challenge

Wednesday, 5/30/18, 4:00-6:00pm

This event for 5th and 6th grade students from Red Hook schools will occur in the auditorium of Summit Academy.  Ten teams from Summit Academy and two teams from BASIS Brooklyn will participate.  The public and media are invited. Photo ID required for entry if you are over 18 years old.  

Topics & Resources

The theme of African American maritime is a broad one.  To help the students (and inform the general public), we provide a growing list of list of topics and resources below.  Topics include people of note, issues, themes and communities whose life and livelihood related to the water, and a list of books in our library that the students can use for their research.  The resources provided here are not intended to be comprehensive; they are an introduction and starting point.



African-American watermen, Chesapeake Bay

"By the 1860s, the Chesapeake Bay became the primary source of oysters in the U.S. This created an industry in need of strong labor. The availability of jobs and relatively low start-up costs for new watermen lured many newly freed blacks to the region. In addition to harvesting the Bay's bounty, many also found jobs building boats and processing the day's catches."

"New African-American communities sprung up along the Bay's shores. These communities became economic and cultural centers for blacks in the region.  During the early 1900s, it was not uncommon to hear men singing while hauling in seines full of fish. These rhythmic songs, known as chanteys, are rooted in African tradition. Chanteys helped the men coordinate their movements and control the pace of the grueling work. Many watermen believed that singing chanteys helped them haul in nets faster and more efficiently than those who did not sing."  [Description from page: African Americans in the Chesapeake]

African-American watermen, Sandy Ground Staten Island

"Founded in the early 19th century by freed black men and women from New York, Sandy Ground is the oldest community established by people of African-American descent in North America. The freed slaves that first settled here formed a farming community, which grew as black oyster fishermen, who were pushed out of Maryland and Delaware when they were freed, settled the region as well. Oysters can still be found on the Conference House beaches."  
[Description from the Sandy Ground Historical Museum website.],_Staten_Island

Colored Sailor's Home

From 1840 William Powell, Sr., an African-American, operated the Colored Sailor's Home, a boarding house for black seamen.  This was where black sailors could stay between ships and jobs.  It was also a center of activism.   His home was one of the many black establishments that were attacked by violent mobs during the Draft Riots of 1863.

The Sailor's Magazine, and Naval Journal. American Seamen's Friend Society, 1846
CARLA PETERSON, Black Elites and the Draft Riots, New York Times blog, 2013
 15 Underground Railroad stops in New York City blog, 2018


The African American community of Weeksville in central Brooklyn was formed in the late 1830's.  The occupation of Mr. Weeks, for whom Weeksville is named, may have been a longshoreman (what is known is that there was the job of a Weeks who lived there).  It was also the home of people who worked as sailors, one of the few jobs open to African-Americans at the time.  For example, in the 1840s, Junius Morel moved to Weeksville to be a teacher and principal of Colored School No. 2.  Morel was born in slavery, fleeing the Carolinas by ship around 1810, and then working several years as a sailor. 

Mullarkey, Lara Steensland. In the hands of their own: The story of the Weeksville School 1840–1893.  Teachers College, Columbia University, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2012.
Weeksville Society web site:

Resources in PortSide's e-museum Red Hook WaterStories

Blacks on the New York Waterfront During the American Revolution

"The American Revolution created opportunities for some enslaved Blacks to obtain freedom. Self-interested economic and military reasons prompted the British to declare free, all enslaved blacks in America who joined them in New York harbor as Royal Navy seamen, British privateersmen or as laborers in the British Army - thus providing blacks with financial independence. But, in a foreshadowing of 20th century racial conflicts on New York’s waterfront, black maritime workers found themselves largely shut out of dockyard work due to white artisans’ resistance. At the same time black mariners serving on captured British ships often found themselves sold into slavery. When the war ended, the best option for most of the British-freed blacks was to flee away from the United States but for the vast majority of enslaved blacks a door to freedom was firmly shut."

Slave Ship Erie 

A pivotal event in the ending of slavery occurred on December 5, 1860, in Atlantic Basin, Red Hook when the slave ship ERIE was sold at government auction.  Its captain and owner, Nathaniel Gordon, was then executed for engaging in the slave trade.  President Abraham Lincoln himself made sure that an example was made of Captain Gordon and his ship ERIE. This is an important event in African American history. 

Growing Discrimination against Black Sailors, 1903

“The race question is extending itself upon the seas." At the beginning of the 19th Century, one out of five American sailors were black; at the start of the 20th Century, black sailors in Brooklyn were facing severe job discrimination. 


African American Maritime Heritage books in our library

These books can be read if you visit PortSide. The library is in the Captain's Cabin aboard the ship MARY A. WHALEN.

If you would like to recommend a book to us, please email  We will be thrilled if you buy the book and ship it to us at 190 Pioneer Street, Brooklyn, NY  11231. Thanks!


This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.