Absalom Boston was the first whaling ship captain to sail with an all-black crew.
Boston was captain at a time when African-Americans were able to find work in the maritime industry. At the height of the whaling industry in the mid-1800s, about 700 black men were either harpooners or officers on American whaling ships. A few, like Boston, sailed as captains.
Black men were more likely to be promoted on whaling ships than merchant vessels and assume more responsibility. One black owner of a boardinghouse for seamen noted that on a whale ship, “A coloured man is only known and looked upon as a man, and is promoted in rank according to his ability and skill to perform the same duties as the white man.”
Siah Carter, in 1862, during the American Civil War, escaped from slavery on a Virginia plantation and found refuge on the USS Monitor, the first iron clad ship of the US. He enlisted aboard the ironclad as a "first class boy," serving as a coal heaver and cook's assistant for the duration of the ship's short existence.
Paul Cuffe, the son of a freed slave and a Native American, went to sea as soon as he was old enough to leave home. During the American Revolution he served on a privateer and often participated in running American supplies through British blockades. At the end of the war, he and his brother-in-law opened a ship yard. With his ships he went on trading and whaling expeditions. By 1811 he was said to be the richest African American in the US and the largest employer of free African Americans. In 1839 he published Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Paul Cuffe, a Pequot Indian: During Thirty Years Spent at Sea
Frederick Douglas was an important African-American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. He escaped from slavery in Maryland by pretending to be a sailor. Trained to fix boats he borrowed the government issued sailor papers of a friend and boarded a train to New York with the story that he was traveling to a job on a boat there. In his article My Escape from Slavery, he wrote "My knowledge of ships and sailor's talk came much to my assistance, for I knew a ship from stem to stern, and from keelson to cross-trees, and could talk sailor like an 'old salt.'"
Henry Francis Downing was an author, playwright, consul and sailor. He was born in New York City in 1846, the son of Henry and Nancy Downing. His family maintained an oyster business that had been owned by his grandfather, Thomas Downing, a well-known freeman. In 1864 Henry Downing enlisted in the Union Navy at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
After the Civil War, Downing began a journey around the world. He reached Liberia where his cousin, Hilary Johnson, would later become president of Liberia from 1884 to 1892. Downing lived in Liberia for three years where he was a private secretary to the secretary of state. Downing returned to the United States and in 1872, reenlisted in the Navy and served for three years. Most of his time was served on the U.S.S. Hartford which operated off the coast of East Africa. With considerable time spent in both West and East Africa, Downing was one of the African Americans most knowledgeable about the African continent and its politics
At the age of 11, Olaudah Equiano was kidnapped from Nigeria and sold to a sea captain in 1756. He became a skilled member of a ship's crew. Equiano was sold to a Quaker merchant from Philadelphia who allowed him to purchase his freedom in 1766. He is thought to be the author of the first black slave narrative, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African (1789) a strongly abolitionist autobiography. The book became a bestseller and, as well as furthering the anti-slavery cause, made Equiano a wealthy man.
Evelyn J. Fields (1949 - ) was the first African American rear admiral of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps. She served in that positon from 1999 to her retirement in 2003. She joined the NOAA Commissioned Corps in 1973 not looking to be a pioneer but just for an interesting occupational challenge after working as a civilian cartographer in the agency. "I think the highest praise you could give her is 'getting the job done,' " said Michael Henderson, a retired NOAA commander.
James Forten (1766-1842) was born a freeman in Philadelphia, the grandson of slaves. At the age of 8 he began working at a sail loft, making sails.
During the Revolutionary War Forten as boy of 12 served on the privateer Royal Louis. The ship was captured by the British but Forten was allowed to go back to work at the sail loft.
32 years later he owed the business with nearly 40 employees.He developed a sail better for maneuvering and maintaining greater speeds and amassed a fortune.With his wealth, he purchased slaves freedom, helped to finance and bring in funding for William Garrison's newspaper, the Libertarian, opened his home on Lombard Street as an Underground Railroad depot and opened a school for Black children.
Samuel Lee Gravely Jr. was a highly decorated Navy Officer who pioneered the way with a multitude of firsts for African Americans in the military. Some of his most notable achievements included, being the first African American Navy Vice Admiral, the first African American to command a Navy warship, the first African American to command a warship during combat, the first African American to command a Navy Fleet, and the first African American to obtain Flag Rank in the military. His decorations include the Bronze Star, Legion of Merit, Navy Commendation Medal, and Meritorious Service Medal.
Michael Healy was a career officer with the United States Revenue Cutter Service. His father was a Irish immigrant planter and his mother was an enslaved African American. Today some say he was the first black US naval officer, while others disagree saying he lived his life as an white Irish man.
Olivia Hooker in 1945 became the African American woman in the US Coast Guard. She served in the Coast Guard until her unit disbanded in mid-1946. She went on to be a psychologist and a professor at Fordham University. She retired at 87 and joined the Coast Guard Auxiliary at age 95
In 1942 at the age of 56, Hugh Mulzac became the first African-American merchant marine naval officer to skipper an integrated crew. More than two decades earlier, Captain Mulzac had declined command of a ship with an all-black crew saying "under no circumstances will I command a Jim Crow vessel."
With Mulzac at the helm, the Liberty Ship SS Booker T. Washington made 22 round-trip voyages in five years carrying 18,000 troops to Europe and the Pacific.
Pinkney, William “Bill”(1935- ) | The Black Past: Remembered and ...
William "Bill" Pinkney is the first African American, and only the fourth person in the world to circumnavigate the globe alone by boat.
Robert Smalls (1839 - 1915)
Robert Smalls, an enslaved black man aboard the Confederate military supply vessel SS PLANTER, captured the ship in 1862, the early years of the American Civil War, and sailed past 5 Southern forts to Northern forces, thereby freeing himself, the other enslaved black crew and their families who were aboard. Small was honored as a war hero in the North, became the 1st black Captain of a US Navy vessel, then a General. He represented South Carolina in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1884-1887.
These are just a few, among many, of Robert Smalls' accomplishments . There are many more good resources than listed here as well.
Venture Smith was one of nearly 12 million Africans who came to America as a captive, but one of very few who wrote a first-hand account of his experiences: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa: But Resident above Sixty Years in the United States of America. Related by Himself,published in 1798. Smith was able to buy his freedom and returned to the sea for a time as a sailor on a whaling expedition.
William Tillman was a steward and cook on-board the merchant schooner S.J. Waring a few months into the American Civil War when his the ship was captured by Confederate privateers. They declared the ship and William Tillman, their property and proceed to sail the ship from the waters off of New Jersey to the South. Fifty miles off Charleston, South Carolina, Tillman overpowers the privateers, recaptures the ship and sails it back to New York where he is rewarded and celebrated.
Captain Gail Harris is an intelligent African American woman whose career in the Navy was one of "firsts," notably, in 1973, she was the first African-American woman to serve as a Naval Intelligence Officer. When she retired in 2001, Harris was the highest-ranking African-American woman in the Navy. Her resume includes instructing at the Armed Forces Air Intelligence Training Center and heading the Pentagon's intelligence, support for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Her memoir, A Woman's War, was published in 2010.
Captain Richard Etheridge, born a slave in North Carolina, joined the Union army during the US Civil War. Later, he entered the United States Life Saving Service (USLSS). By dint of his dedication and skill, in 1880, he was promoted to captain the Life-Saving station off the coast of Pea Island, North Carolina, becoming the first African-American to command such a position. Together with his all African-American crew, he rescued the lives of sailors in peril. In 1996, he and his team were posthumously awarded Gold Lifesaving Medals by the Coast Guard for the daring rescue of the crew of the three-masted schooner, the E.S. Newman that went aground in a terrific storm one hundred years earlier.
The USLSS, founded in 1848 to save the lives of the shipwrecked, merged with the Revenue Cutter Service in 1915 to form the US Coast Guard.
Matthew A. Henson, at the age of 11 or 12, left Baltimore as a cabin boy aboard a ship. He soon sailed to the Baltic Sea where bitter cold locked the ship in ice for several months. Far from putting him off, he would become the first African American explorer in the Artic, and, in 1909, may have been the first to reach the North Pole, slightly before his more famous mentor and fellow explorer Robert E. Perry.
Richard Crafus was famous in his day, but his history in now unclear. He became a prominent African American leader, known as "King Dick" while imprisoned by the British during the War of 1812. An imposing man and boxer, it is said he was a privateer – a government approved pirate – captured by the British, as were many of the other black men imprisoned with him. During the war of 1812, nearly 20% of the U.S. seamen were African Americans.
Sources: Alan Thomas Lipke, The Strange Life and Stranger Afterlife of King Dick including His Adventures in Haiti and Hollywood With Observations On The Construction Of Race, Class, Nationality, Gender, Slang Etymology and Religion. January 2013.
Isaac Myers was born in Baltimore at a time when many American blacks were enslaved, but both his parents were free. At the age of 16 he apprenticed as a ship caulker, making wooden boats watertight, and by age 20 he was leading the job on large clipper ships. In 1865, after more than 1,000 black longshoremen and mechanics lost their jobs because of their color, Myers joins with other business men to raise funds and open a color-blind shipyard. The company operates until 1884.
Myers had many other accomplishments including being key to the formation of the first national black labor union.
LT Harriet Ida Pickens and ENS Frances Eliza Willis, WWII
LT Harriet Ida Pickens and ENS Frances Eliza Willis Graduates became the first African-American women commissioned into the U.S. Navy when they became WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) in 1944. More than 70 other black women followed their lead by September 2 1945.
Francis Willis Thorpe wrote about her experiences in her 2007 book, Navy Blue and Other Colors: A Memoir of Adventure and Happiness.