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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
map and the rest of the Black Hands Blue Seas exhibit began in Mystic
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.