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Voyage to Discovery: Maritime Heritage

African-American History Month

Images of African-American mariners, explorers, and divers

Visit Voyage to Discovery for feature stories, interviews, and videos about African-American contributions to the nation’s maritime heritage. The website is a partnership of NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (ONMS), Murrain Associates, Inc., and the National Association of Black Scuba Divers.

Dawn Wright, first African-American woman to dive in the three-person autonomous craft Alvin

Dawn Wright, the first African-American woman to dive in the three-person autonomous craft Alvin — one of many stories available on the Voyage to Discovery website.

Through the site, visitors can take a journey with NOAA’s Maritime Heritage Program as scuba divers embark on the program's core mission—exploring the ocean depths in an effort to identify a sunken shipwreck.

As far back as the American Revolution, black people have been involved in virtually every aspect of maritime work. Despite an uncertain and sometimes dangerous racial climate, they worked as skippers and captains, whalers and fishermen, and served in the armed forces at sea. They also managed lighthouses, steered paddleboats and warships, and owned businesses in the maritime industry. The Underground Railroad used ships to spirit slaves to freedom, and black mariners helped shaped the identity and culture of freedmen's communities from New England to the Pacific Coast.

Among the people profiled on the website are:

  • Rear Admiral Evelyn Fields, the first African-American and the first woman to lead the NOAA Commissioned Officers Corps, the nation's seventh uniformed service.
  • Carl Brashear, the first African-American to become a U.S. Navy Diver.
  • Captain Absalom Boston, a freeborn Nantucket Islander in 1785 who led an all-black crew aboard the whaling schooner Industry and amassed substantial real estate holdings.
  • Robert Smalls, a slave who became a Civil War hero in the Union Navy and served as a Congressman from South Carolina during Reconstruction.

The website is part of a broader NOAA initiative to build public awareness about the legacy of African-American maritime heritage and engage a broad spectrum of Americans in the stewardship of coastal and ocean resources through education, archaeology, science, and underwater exploration.

Essay Contest

The National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, in collaboration with the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, is conducting a national essay contest to encourage students to research and write about African-American contributions to U.S. maritime history. The contest, which runs through April 15, 2013, is open to all middle and high school students in the United States. Middle School applicants must write and submit an essay of no more than two typed, double-spaced pages; high school applicants must write and submit an essay of no more than three typed, double-spaced pages. The essay must be about an African-American person or group NOT already profiled on the National Association of Black Scuba Divers website or the Voyage to Discovery website. For information on contest rules, judging criteria, prizes, and where to submit essays, visit the Voyage to Discovery Essay Contest page.

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