AUTHOR INTERVIEW: SKIP FINLEY
by Carl Oscar Olson
History is a gift. Good or bad, right or wrong, it shows us where we came from and, if we’re wise enough to pay attention and listen to it, where not to tread again. And in spite of all the schooling, all the television and movies, and all the stories passed down from our elders, there are still pieces of our past that, to many, remain undiscovered.
Today, it is hard to imagine people of certain color or creed having an impossible time living the American Dream. But looking back on our history one will see a very different picture. If opportunity did arise, folks faced the impossible in an attempt to better themselves. In Skip Finley’s book Whaling Captains of Color: America’s First Meritocracy, after years of extensive research, he shows the many ways whaling was a foot in the door for people of color to finally find their way into being accepted in American society.
Finley shows how Native Americans, African Americans, and Cape Verdeans not only served on ships out at sea for months or for years, but became masters of them. He relates the individual stories of captains and crews and mixes those with what the whaling industry was and portrays the rawness of life aboard a whaling vessel. Though these men faced impossible oppression on the mainland, the ocean was a place where the demand never ceased and death was always near. Whether or not a man could do his job well overcame whatever racism the crew may have felt.
Skip Finley has worn many hats in his life. He started his successful and prolific career in radio, becoming a well-known executive and station owner. From there, he served as Vice Chairman of the National Association of Broadcasters and Chairman of the Radio Advertising Bureau, having had a hand in virtually all broadcasting industry boards of directors and serving on their executive committees. Throughout his time on air, he kept watch over 44 radio stations, 5 of which he owned, encompassing 18 different markets. His experience includes successes with radio networks, syndicated programs, and even one satellite channel.
Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Finley found his love for the islands while vacationing as a child. He and his family spent summers in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard. His family purchased their house in 1955 for $4,600, but it was no easy feat. “Dad’s white local attorney had to buy it and sell it back to us.”
Back then, the trip from New York was a longer than a few hours. “It was almost wholly along the serpentine, stoplight-speckled Route 1. Today’s four-hour, 250-mile drive was then an arduous nine to ten hours in Dad’s Pontiac station wagon, crammed with a season’s worth of clothes and supplies.”
He remembers a car full of kids and adults trying their best to keep cool heads throughout the steamy and slow 9-hour journey. His father, having come from Mobile, Alabama, knew that there was no good reason to stop the car during this day-long journey. “This was the 50s, when minds weren’t so open. Stopping was for gas and bathrooms only to avoid unseemly contact with white folks whose horizons were not very broad.”
Skip didn’t start writing until what he calls his “fifth failed attemped at retirement.” He and his wife moved to the Vineyard full time in 1999, where he had been spending summers by the sea since the age of six. He began a small circular known as The Vineyard Vine as a hobby. From June 2012 to June 2017, he wrote a weekly Oak Bluffs column for the Vineyard Gazette.
Looking back on his many landmark accomplishments in life, he recalls: “I didn’t get here because I was cute, because I was cool, and definitely not because I’m black. I got here because I could do the job. And that’s what the book is about. It’s about these guys who could do the job and were damn good at it long before anyone thought they had a chance of doing anything at all.”
Whaling was really the first American industry to allow for any kind of real diversity, and the number of colored men on those boats was far from insignificant. Like Finley says, a man working on a ship rose to captain not because he was well connected or white, but because he was good at his job. There were many long, quiet days at sea, so along the way, if he was lucky, he would also learn the art of navigation and how to read and write.
Working with archival records at whaling museums, in libraries, from private archives and interviews with people whose ancestors were whaling masters, Finley culls stories from the lives of more than 50 black whaling captains to create a portrait of what life was like for these leaders of color on the high seas.
Whenever a whale was spotted, the crew, often including the captain, would jump into action. The men would row to the whale and attack it, oftentimes with the captain delivering the fatal blow. The first, second, or third mate and boat steerer could eventually have opportunities to move into increasingly responsible roles. Finley explains in his book how this skills-based system propelled captains of color to the highest ranks.
Whaling was easily one of the largest industries in the country during it’s time, comparable only to the production of cotton, agriculture, and the slave trade. Its main product—oil—lit lamps during the Revolutionary War, cured leather in the heartland, and lubricated the many machines that carried our country through the Industrial Revolution. The whaling industry made cities in Massachusetts and beyond prosper. Money made from ventures at sea were invested into railroads and textiles, among other industries. Millions of whales died in an enterprise that lasted more than two centuries.
Finley’s book concludes as both reason and politics come to a head to eventually ruin the industry. Reasons such as international conflict, unpredictable weather, disease, and simply the fact that whales are a non-renewable natural resource having been hunted close to extinction. The timing was right, because the end of the Civil War began to pave the way for these captains of color to find a better life on dry land and, at the same time, marked the end of an industry that boomed for hundreds of years.
Finley’s book was released in June of 2020, when our country was in the midst of much turmoil, some of which is still simmering. “It was a complete coincidence,” Finley recalls. Whaling Captains of Color: America’s First Meritocracy has just been released in its second printing and is now also available in softcover as well as digitally on Amazon for Kindle.
The 2022 Nantucket Book Festival event
Skip Finley with Michae Schulder: Whaling Captains of Color
will be held in the Methodist Church, 2 Centre Street, at 10am this Friday.
Tickets are not required for this free event, but author talks often reach capacity, so arrive early to get a seat.