‘Black Jacks’ persuaded inmate Gregory White to shape up and ship out

Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST - Gregory White poses with a copy of the book that changed his life for the better.

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.

(Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST) - The author of Black Jacks, W. Jeffrey Bolster, inscribed To Gregory, who will get to sea!’ in the copy that Gregory White carries with him. Gregory White's life began to change for the better after reading a review of the book Black Jacks while in prison.

(Courtesy of Gregory White) - Gregory White in a prison library in 1994.

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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.

From December 1981 until October 2003, I was incarcerated in maximum-security prisons. My crimes were bank robbery, weapons violation and statutory burglary.

I had been a 21 year-old who made an irresponsible decision to violate the law. I thought I had all the answers. Of my own volition, I chose to follow a reckless pattern of behavior that included the danger associated with the criminal elements and corrupt activities that could be found in the inner city of Washington, D.C.

I held some callow belief that I would express my anger and some warped sense of bravado by robbing a bank. And so, with a head full of wild ideas, I made a short trip into suburban Fairfax County and robbed a bank. It was the worst decision that I have made in my entire life.

In reality, it was a perilous, frightening experience for everyone involved; especially so for the young woman, a bank employee, whom I threatened with a handgun.

At my initial court appearance, as I stepped from the jail transportation bus, I remember looking out across a parking lot — and the first face I saw was that of my mother. The pained expression on her face was heart-wrenching. This was a moment that I have never forgotten.

* * *

My mother was a 14-year-old girl when I was born in August 1960. She had abandoned her path to education, not to mention her childhood, and gone to work in the adult world to raise me.

My mother had been born in an old shack of a house at the bottom of 33rd Street NW (below Cady’s Alley NW). My father had been born in a narrow rowhouse at 1415 Carrollsburg Pl. SW.

When I read about exotic places it would lift my spirits. I read all the books and magazines and newspapers I could find on subjects concerning history and geography. The world was where I wanted to be. In time, after reading a particular article, I would close my eyes and dream: “I’m going . . .”

When I was 17 I took off fast from home and joined the Navy. All I possessed was the clothes on my back, an eighth-grade education and a $5 bill — but I was gone.

In 1978, at the Orlando Naval Training Center, I received three months of military training and was assigned to the destroyer USS Moosbrugger. The Moose, as we called her, would be my home for the next two years. Aboard the Moose, I worked in the main engine rooms and befriended guys whom I have remained close friends with to this day.

And we visited seaports: New Orleans, Hampton Roads, Port-au-Prince, Charlotte Amalie, Port Everglades, Roosevelt Roads, Charleston, and Guantanamo Bay. I felt a sense of achievement: I was a bona fide “plankowner” on the Moose, a man of the world.

But I began making bad decisions. I began to experiment with marijuana and pills and cheap liquor. I adopted a poor attitude.

Before long, I was subjected to strict Navy disciplinary action. And then my enlistment paperwork was looked at more closely. It was discovered that I did not have the required high school diploma or GED. My behavior ruined any chance that I might be granted a waiver. In a matter of weeks, I was processed out of the Navy with an administrative discharge. My dream of being a sailor was crushed.

Thirteen months later I was in jail for robbing a bank.

* * *

The days turned into weeks, and I continued to read this particular book review. One day, I had an idea that I would send a letter to the book’s author, not just for a copy of “Black Jacks,” but also for advice on a long shot that maybe I could become a merchant mariner. I wondered if there was a chance that I could do something worthwhile with my life.

Jeff Bolster, associate professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, and a licensed master mariner, not only responded, he gave me hope. He told me that it was very much possible for an ex-con to become a merchant mariner. His response carried a matter-of-fact assuredness. It was almost as if he had heard me shuffling around in the dark and handed me a flashlight.

I wasn’t able to receive a copy of “Black Jacks” right away. Prison rules say approval for books must be obtained. But when I finally got my signed copy, I read it half a dozen times in succession. The story of African American seamen left an indelible impression on my heart and soul. I identified with the story of those who had been imprisoned or enslaved and had plied the maritime industries as a means to survive or to be liberated. The trying conditions of slavery far outweighed the handicaps of my modern incarceration.

The men and women storied in “Black Jacks” became my inspiration. I made a willful and deliberate decision that I would change my attitude and redirect the course of my life. Going to sea became the central passion of my life.

Through Bolster, I was able to connect with professional mariners who all strongly encouraged me.

I had about six years left to serve out my sentence, and so I resolved to prepare myself behavior-wise and psychologically for a sensible approach to my goal. There is no mistake about this: When a person spends 10 years, 20 years, or 30 years in prison, his mannerisms become altered or somewhat different from “everyday people” out in society. The first thing I felt I had to do was abandon my “I don’t care about the system” attitude.

I knew that society would not be a good place for me to exhibit the values that seem to mean so much behind prison walls. Institutional syndrome bourne from long periods of time served in prison is very much a reality. I started considering these things while I was still on the inside. I had something to care about now.

In October 2003, I was released. My mother came to the prison and took me home. I would have to serve three years on parole, then I could apply for my merchant mariner credentials. I would find myself a job and bide my time on parole.

Two months later, my mother passed away in her sleep. She was 57. She had often said, “I pray that I will live long enough to see Gregory come home from prison.” And she did. My mother must have put every grain of her spirit into that prayer.

* * *

One by one, I overcame the barriers of being an ex-con with minimal life skills and work experience. The first couple of years were not easy at all.

I worked long hours doing menial labor such as washing dishes, construction, painting, landscaping and ditch-digging. I earned very little money. I remember buying my first car for $240 in cash, and then I had to teach myself how to drive it.

I struggled with relationships. I labored with my bills. Painstakingly, I made effort after effort just to make it day to day. But I adopted a single motion: forward.

Occasionally, Professor Bolster would come to Washington on business and we would meet for lunch.

Finally, in October 2006, I was discharged from parole. I was now eligible to apply for a U.S. Merchant Mariners Document. However, no matter how hard I worked, I just could not accumulate the money necessary for the application fees. Months passed.

Professor Bolster suggested that his brother, Peter Bolster, fleet captain for the Living Classrooms Foundation — Shipboard Department in Baltimore, may need a crew member on an educational vessel. The vessels — the Lady Maryland, the Sigsbee, and the Mildred Belle — were essentially classrooms that took students, age 6 thru 17, for short voyages into the Baltimore Inner Harbor and Chesapeake Bay to learn about the environment.

I called Pete Bolster and we set up a meeting.

In September 2007 I was hired as mate/educator (unlicensed) to work aboard the Mildred Belle. It was done! I had succeeded! And I would work on the waters of the Baltimore Inner Harbor and the Chesapeake Bay as a sailor!

I was 47. A long and tumultuous 30 years had passed since I had first walked across the quarterdeck of the USS Moosbrugger as a sailor. And 10 years had passed since the publication of “Black Jacks.”

I have since become a documented U.S. Merchant Mariner. I have worked at sea in the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. I have traveled from Boston to Barbados, and from Trinidad to Texas. Prospective work and travel looms in Mexico and Panama and Norway. Improving my mariner credentials with professional training and endorsements will strengthen my career. The future seems bright with opportunity.

The power of the written word is truly remarkable. Who would have thought that a book review could touch someone in such a dynamic manner? Without exaggeration, “Black Jacks: African American Seaman in the Age of Sail” inspired me to alter the course of my life.

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