African Americans on board USS Constitution in the War of 1812

African Americans in the Maritime Industry

Many historians agree that despite northern emancipation after the Revolution, whites did not look upon African Americans as equals. Racial stereotypes remained prevalent, even in northern states. African Americans were often confined to jobs similar in nature to those they held while enslaved, including those that involved hard physical labor or serving other (white) people. Some African American men who worked as barbers or owned small businesses managed to win a middle-class income, but most continued to make pitifully small wages.

The maritime industry, however; offered free African American men opportunites for decent pay and readily available employment. Most American ships were integrated - that is, blacks and whites worked side by side to sail the vessel. Racial tensions existed aboard ship, but the hierarchical boundaries of rank on board a ship like USS Constitution took precedence over mere racial prejudice.

Just because white sailors were forced to live alongside African Americans does not mean it changed their racial beliefs. In fact, records from British Prisoner of War camps indicate that as soon as American sailors were free from the structure of shipboard life, they quickly segregated themselves by race.

African Americans on board USS Constitution

According to a statistical survey, approximately 7 to 15 percent of the crew of any given naval vessel during the War of 1812 consisted of African American and sailors of mixed race. Using various primary resources (including naval pension records and United States census records) researchers identified roughly 12 percent of the crew, who served on board USS Constitution during the War of 1812 who may have been African American or mixed race.

These African American sailors were almost always ranked as seamen, which contradicts a commonly held belief that persons of color held only the "unskilled" positions on board ship, such as cook or servant.

"Equal work for equal pay": Sailors on board a naval ship received pay for the rank at which they served.African Americans and sailors of mixed race received the same pay as their white shipmates.

Learn more about African American sailors on board Constitution with this Essay.

Sailor's Stories: Meet African Americans from USS Constitution during the War of 1812

David Debias, a young African American from Boston who served as a "Boy," the lowest naval rank.

William Cooper, a Native American from Long Island, New York, who served as an Ordinary Seaman and member of a gun team.

Jesse Williams, an African American man from Pennsylvania, who served as an Ordinary Seaman on board USS Constitution and also the USS Lawrence on the Great Lakes during the War of 1812.