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New Merchant Marine sculpture honors African American military service

New Merchant Marine sculpture honors African American military service

On May 15, the City of Westminster will commemorate Armed Forces Day by officially unveiling three new figurative sculptures in the city’s celebrated Armed Forces Tribute Garden at City Park. In recognition of Black History Month, Westminster officials are proud to announce that one of the sculptures, honoring the Merchant Marine, will also pay tribute to the military service of African Americans within that storied branch of the armed forces.

Dedicated in 2008, Westminster’s Armed Forces Tribute Garden is a contemplative space that honors all six branches of the U.S. Armed Forces: Coast Guard, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Merchant Marine. The garden is paved with memorial bricks bearing the names of armed service people from each military branch. Each branch is also to be anchored with a larger-than-life bronze figure in a corresponding uniform and pose.

Of the six military branches, the Merchant Marine is probably least familiar to the general public. The Merchant Marine was founded in 1939. In peacetime, the Merchant Marine primarily transports cargo and passengers within the navigable waters of the United States; in times of war, however, the Merchant Marine can be called to serve as an auxiliary to the US Navy, delivering military personnel and supplies. Because historically merchant ships travel unarmed and unaccompanied, they have at times suffered tremendous casualties. During World War II alone, 3.1 million tons of merchant ships were lost in battle. Mariners died at a rate of 1 in 26, which was the highest rate of casualties of any service.

Westminster made the decision to model the Merchant Marine sculpture in the likeness of an African American mariner to bring greater awareness to the fact that African Americans represented an estimated ten percent of merchant mariners during World War II. Furthermore, African Americans served in every capacity aboard merchant ships, during a painful time in American history in which other branches of the military employed policies of racial restriction and segregation.

African Americans have a long history of serving their country with pride and integrity—even in the face of institutional prejudice and discrimination. With the Merchant Marine sculpture, the City of Westminster is proud to honor the distinguished military service and bravery of African Americans.

Celebrate Armed Forces Day with us
Traditionally, the city hosts a formal Armed Forces Day Ceremony in person at City Park; however, this year the ceremony will be held virtually, with a video tribute posted on May 15. To participate, visit the City of Westminster’s Facebook page beginning May 15: www.Facebook.com/CityofWestminsterColorado.

Want to know more Black history involving the Merchant Marines? Keep reading! 

Liberty Ships and African American Trailblazers

To aid the war effort, the U.S. government ordered the construction of 2,751 Liberty Ships during World War II, naming them after members of Congress, Supreme Court justices, scientists, and artists. Of these 2,751 ships 18 were named after American Americans. The SS Booker T. Washington was the first Liberty Ship to be named for an African American and was mastered by Captain Hugh Mulzac. Born in the British West Indies and becoming an American citizen in 1912, Mulzac began preparing for his seaman’s career in his youth and served as a merchant mariner aboard U.S. and British ships during World War I. 

In 1922, Captain Hugh Mulzac was given the opportunity to command a ship but was informed that it could only be an all-black crew. Mulzac refused the offer, declaring that “under no circumstances will I command a Jim Crow vessel.” It would be 22 years before his wish to command an integrated crew would be met. It was with the SS Booker T. Washington, that Captain Hugh Mulzac became the first African American Captain, the first African American man to obtain a ships masters license, and the first African American Merchant Marine Naval Officer to command an integrated crew during World War II.  Under Captain Mulzac command, over 18,000 troops were transported around the world. 

At the time of Mulzac’s death, his service in the Merchant Marine was not met with Veteran status as the U.S. Military didn’t recognize the Merchant Marine as veterans until 1988. On March 13th, 2020, Congress passed the Merchant Mariners of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2020. This law recognizes the service and sacrifices of the nearly 250,000 Merchant Mariners during World War II. Of the 250,000 Merchant Mariners, approximately 24,000 were African Americans (10% of the Service) who served aboard commercial ships during World War II. They, like their white counterparts, served aboard ships that were unarmed, unescorted, and constantly targeted by German U-boats for destruction.

African-Americans in the U.S. Merchant marine and U.S. Maritime service during World War II. (n.d.). Retrieved February 12, 2021, from http://www.usmm.org/african-americans.html

Denise Krepp 10-04-2019 11:21:33, The Maritime Executive 02-12-2021 02:01:00, Brian Gicheru Kinyua 02-12-2021 01:59:00, ARES Shipyard 02-12-2021 01:03:00, & The Maritime Executive 02-12-2021 10:03:06. (n.d.). Honoring african american world war ii merchant mariners. Retrieved February 12, 2021, from https://www.maritime-executive.com/editorials/honoring-african-american-world-war-ii-merchant-mariners

United States Merchant Marine. (2021, February 07). Retrieved February 12, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Merchant_Marine

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