The Odyssey of Gregory White:

His transition from maximum-security prisoner to merchant mariner, launched by a singular book on Black History.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013, 5:00 P.M.
Florence & Chafetz Hillel House, Conservative Chapel, 213 Bay State Road, Boston
(BU Maps)
Talk by Gregory White, Merchant Mariner, and W. Jeffrey Bolster, Professor of History at University of New Hampshire, followed by a book signing of W. Jeffrey Bolster’s Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail.



The newspaper came to me in pieces and sections. Rarely would there be a complete newspaper. And when it did arrive, it would always be two or three days old. However, it always made for a good read, even when an edition was days old. There was an article in the feature section, a book review, that caught my attention. The book was “Black Jacks: African American Seaman in the Age of Sail”by W. Jeffrey Bolster. The review held a great deal of information and historical data, so for days I read and re-read it. I would pace the floor, holding the article in hand, reading again and again about African American sailors. I began thinking about how time and occasion has passed me by, and how I had aspired as a child to be a sailor. Traveling the world was what I had always envisioned for myself — the open water, visiting foreign seaports and exotic locales. And here was a book about men and women, young and old, some free, some held in servitude, some disenfranchised, many with limited education or none at all, some with few possessions (if any) — and they had taken on the challenge, taken up their sea bags and daringly demonstrated commitment and resolve and “pushed off . . .” I, however, was in a prison cell. In fact, at the time I read the review, I was in solitary confinement for getting into a fistfight on the prison yard at the Nottoway Correctional Center in Burkeville, Va. I had no way to reach the outside world, much less an exotic locale … read more about Gregory White in his article for the Washington Post.



An Associate Professor of History at UNH, Jeff Bolster is best known as the prize-winning author of Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail, published by Harvard University Press in 1997.  Black Jacks was listed by the New York Times Book Review as a “notable non-fiction book of the year” in 1997, when it also was co-winner of the American Historical Association’s Wesley-Logan Prize for the best book in African American history. Black Jacks won several other awards. Bolster was educated at Trinity College (BA), Brown University (MA), and Johns Hopkins University (PhD). Awarded a Fulbright Distinguished Chair in 2002-2003, he taught American Studies at the University of Southern Denmark. Author of several other books, his most recent is a marine environmental history of the Atlantic Ocean. The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail was published by Harvard University Press in 2012. Prior to becoming a historian, Bolster was a commercial mariner for ten years, licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard as Master of Steam, Motor and Auxiliary-Sail vessels of not more than 200 tons, All Oceans. In his free time he continues to mess about in boats. Learn more about W. Jeffrey Bolster.


Few Americans, black or white, recognize the degree to which early African American history is a maritime history. W. Jeffrey Bolster shatters the myth that black seafaring in the age of sail was limited to the Middle Passage. Seafaring was one of the most significant occupations among both enslaved and free black men between 1740 and 1865. Tens of thousands of black seamen sailed on lofty clippers and modest coasters. They sailed in whalers, warships, and privateers. Some were slaves, forced to work at sea, but by 1800 most were free men, seeking liberty and economic opportunity aboard ship.
Bolster brings an intimate understanding of the sea to this extraordinary chapter in the formation of black America. Because of their unusual mobility, sailors were the eyes and ears to worlds beyond the limited horizon of black communities ashore. Sometimes helping to smuggle slaves to freedom, they were more often a unique conduit for news and information of concern to blacks.
But for all its opportunities, life at sea was difficult. Blacks actively contributed to the Atlantic maritime culture shared by all seamen, but were often outsiders within it. Capturing that tension, Black Jacks examines not only how common experiences drew black and white sailors together—even as deeply internalized prejudices drove them apart—but also how the meaning of race aboard ship changed with time. Bolster traces the story to the end of the Civil War, when emancipated blacks began to be systematically excluded from maritime work. Rescuing African American seamen from obscurity, this stirring account reveals the critical role sailors played in helping forge new identities for black people in America. An epic tale of the rise and fall of black seafaring, Black Jacks is African Americans’ freedom story presented from a fresh perspective.