Just about 15 years ago, Gregory White found himself locked in solitary confinement—again—this time for fighting in the yard of the Nottoway Correctional Center in Burkeville, Va. “I was a bad guy,” he says frankly, “but didn’t want to be one anymore.” The former Navy sailor-turned-bank robber was looking for a way out from the convict’s life, even though parole was still at least seven years away.
His chance came on that day in 1997, in the form of some scattered pages of a two-day-old newspaper—about as current and comprehensive as news gets in “the hole.” One article stood out from the rest: a review of a book, Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail, by Jeffrey Bolster, PhD ’92.
Bolster had recently finished the doctoral program in the Krieger School’s Department of History. His dissertation on African-American sailors during the 18th and 19th centuries had become the foundation for Black Jacks, his first book. “For much of this time, the age of sail in America was also the age of slavery,” he explains. “Thus the book is largely about people of color in motion during a time when they were meant to be in chains.” Bolster thought of his book as an important documentation of American history but didn’t expect Black Jacks to resonate with “black men in chains” of the modern era… inmates like Gregory White, for example, who was inspired by the review and contacted Bolster for a copy.
“I felt a connection with [the men in] this book,” White says, “even though this was 200 years ago. I could identify. There were chapters in the book where there were sailors in prison, like prisoners of war in the War of 1812. They were locked up, and I was, too. But they overcame. They rose above it…. The book gave me inspiration to get back on track and be what I always wanted to be.” White was also impressed with Bolster himself, who included with the book a note that encouraged White to pursue a career as a merchant marine upon his release. “I read that book over and over, until it literally fell apart in my hands,” White remembers.
White and Bolster kept in touch, and after White’s 2003 release from prison and another three years of parole, he landed his first job in more than 20 years as a working sailor. He worked aboard an educational vessel with Living Classrooms, an experiential education organization based in Baltimore. (Bolster had helped White land that first sailing job at Living Classrooms, where his brother, Peter Bolster, directs all shipboard operations.) After building up more professional sailing experience at Living Classrooms, White became a merchant marine…and has never looked back.
“The book took on a life that I never expected,” Bolster explained this summer to a meeting of the National Council on the Humanities. The National Endowment for the Humanities, which the council oversees, provided funding for Black Jacks in 1993–94 and, after learning about Bolster and White’s remarkable story, invited the pair to speak at its semiannual meeting in July. “I have a file folder in my office that continues to grow,” Bolster told the council, “just full of letters from regular folks that were touched by this book. I think it gave people a sense of ownership of this piece of the past that they never really knew belonged to them.”
And to an extent, the book gave Bolster ownership over his own past. A commercial sailor before his career in academia, Bolster spent much of his young adult life with seafarers. “After college, I bought a one-way ticket to the Caribbean and spent most of the next 10 years on ships and boats. Along the way I met West Indian men on the wharves, talked to them, watched them play dominos and drink bad rum…. I wasn’t thinking about writing a book about black guys on boats.” But years later while in graduate school, says Bolster, he noticed that the history of sailors of color was surprisingly undocumented. So he came to Hopkins with a loose plan to pay tribute to this largely untold period of history. “Hopkins was great for me,” Bolster remembers, “It was sink or swim, and the history department really allowed me to do my best work.”
Bolster, an associate professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, has just published his most recent book, The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail. Meanwhile, White continues to work his way up the ranks of the merchant marines and writes about his journeys on the side.