Our nation is currently undergoing an intense dialogue about its history and the different experiences of white and black Americans.
Until a few generations ago, U.S. merchant mariners of all races were looked down upon as an underclass, poorly paid and often badly treated, despite the romanticism with which the mariner’s life was sometimes portrayed. Organizations like the Seamen’s Church Institute were founded to minister to merchant mariners, who at that time were recognized as among the most downtrodden groups in society.
There has never been a time when African Americans didn’t contribute to the towing and barge industry.
The crisis of river commerce in the late 19th century and after World War I wiped out a lot of river jobs that had traditionally gone to African Americans. When towboat technology began to change with federal investment in the rivers and the beginnings of the switch to diesel, it was during a time of economic depression when open racial discrimination was not uncommon.
After World War II, American society began to change, slowly and haltingly. On the inland waterways, even when overt prejudice and discrimination began to fade, there weren’t a lot of pathways for African Americans to a way of life that often was passed down in families. Thankfully, that’s changing, and today African Americans contribute at every level of our industry, as well as in the Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard.
That growth has been a part of increasing diversity throughout the industry. The towing industry was traditionally overwhelmingly male, despite a sprinkling of female captains in steamboat days, a few of whom became famous. That, too, began to change in the 1970s. Today, capable, talented women serve in all reaches of the industry: as deckhands, tanker barge personnel, towboat captains, port directors and executives. The American Waterways Operators, the National Waterways Conference, Inland Rivers, Ports & Terminals Inc., Waterways Council Inc., and the ports of Pittsburgh, Houston and New Orleans are all led by women, not to mention many smaller ports. The Mississippi Valley Division of the Corps of Engineers will soon get its first-ever female commander.
Being a mariner is a great common denominator that bridges divisions in race and gender. It is that bond that has helped propel our industry forward.
Today our industry faces many challenges, from epic floods to the coronavirus, crumbling infrastructure, trade disruptions and new technologies. The fact that we are meeting and weathering these challenges while continuing to serve the country so well as an essential business surely has a lot to do with the fact that we are drawing our leaders and teammates from the full range of available talent. Diversity in our workforce is a major strength and we are getting stronger every day.