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.
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."
information in exhibit not widely known
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
*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.
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.
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
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.