Accessibility links

Exhibit Tells Forgotten Story of African Americans at Sea

  • Stasia Demarco

Most histories of African Americans at sea focus on slave ships, which transported their human cargo from Africa to the United States or other parts of the world. But a new exhibit in the port city of Philadelphia expands that story to reveal the substantial contributions African Americans made to the maritime world. Reporter Stasia DeMarco attended the exhibit at the Independence Seaport Museum.

Black Hands, Blue Seas explores the untold stories of the African American maritime experience. Curator Craig Bruns says there is much more to tell than just the voyage from Africa to slavery. "We have longshoremen. We have the ordinary sailor. We have naval personnel. We have whalers." He says many of the different experiences and contributions are surprising to visitors.

The black maritime tradition actually begins in Africa, and the exhibit features several artifacts reflecting that. Bruns points to a canoe that was manned by four oarsmen. "It just shows that Africa had its own maritime traditions and those traditions were transferred to America by the slaves, and many of those traditions were then transferred to American sailing traditions."

Much information in exhibit not widely known

A group of middle school students from Brooklyn, New York, spent part of their class trip to Philadelphia touring the exhibit. Their teacher, Dane Martinez, says the school wanted the students to have a deeper understanding of their heritage and culture. "We knew that it gave a fresh perspective on the civil rights struggle for African Americans," he explains.

Philadelphia was the hub of antislavery activity in the Americas in the 1700s and 1800s, and the students toured parts of the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses for fugitive slaves escaping to freedom in the northern states. "We hear this is affectionately known sometimes as the Underwater Railroad," Martinez adds, referring to the Delaware River, which runs past the Independence Seaport Museum and was used by runaway slaves heading north.

African Americans in the Maritime World

*Lewis Temple (1800-1854) invented a harpoon that revolutionized the whaling industry.
*John Mashow (1805-1893) was a master shipbuilder who designed close to 100 ships.
*The Pea Island Life-Saving Station on North Carolina's treacherous Outer Banks was manned by an all-black crew who rescued some 200 shipwrecked souls 1880-1947.
*Hugh Mulzac (1886-1971) was the first African-American officer to command an integrated crew in the modern American merchant marine.
*Doris "Dorie" Miller (1919-1943) was the first black recipient of the Navy Cross in WWII, pinned to his chest by Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.
*James Graham (b. 1922) served in the first all-black crew in U.S. Navy history aboard the USS Mason in WWII.
*William Pinkney (b. 1935) was the first person of African descent to sail alone around world.

The exhibit is an educational experience for more than just tour groups and school kids. Greta Chapin-McGill attended the exhibit with a few friends.The black author says she was impressed by the amount of African history she wasn't aware of and would never have known if she hadn't seen Black Hands, Blue Seas.

"I kind of always have felt that maritime and sailing and all of that was not a black experience," she admits. She was surprised to learn that it was, and remains, a big part of African American history. The exhibit depicts that history through artwork, tools, music, photographs and historic documents.

Negroland in Central Africa

Among those historic documents are maps of Africa. Chapin-McGill says she was especially struck by one map from 1747, during the slave-trading period, which depicts all the places slaves were taken from. "There was a huge part of the middle of the continent that had been named Negroland, and I have never heard that, never seen that term before and that was just very striking to me."

There never was a country called Negroland. But it was common for cartographers of the 1600s and 1700s to gain their knowledge of the globe by talking to explorers, traders and travelers, then use their imaginations to fill in the unknown places on their map.And after having many conversations, cartographer Emanuel Bowen must have felt that the area where people were called Negros would be called Negroland.

His map and the rest of the Black Hands Blue Seas exhibit began in Mystic Harbor, on the Connecticut coast, and will be in Philadelphia for a year before traveling on to its next destination… continuing to cast light on an ignored chapter of American history.

XS
SM
MD
LG