Mississippi riverboat captain celebrates 36 years on the river

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Boat Captain James Gilmer has seen his fair share while traveling down the Mississippi River over the past 30 years.

“I`ve seen people cars go in the river. I`ve seen people jump off the bridge. I`ve seen where police have picked bodies up out of the water.”

Despite all that, he said it’s the people that keep him coming back.

“U.K., Sweden, Norway. I met folks from Egypt.”

Those are places Gilmer has dreamed of, but his own dream came to fruition exactly 36 years ago.

“Black captain of this company. Black captain of the Mississippi River. That`s history.”

Gilmer was working in fast food before making the career change. He heard people working the boats made money and that’s all he needed to hear.

But it wasn’t easy. He said the man in charge of the Memphis riverboats at the time didn’t want to hire a person of color to be captain.

“This company never had a black captain and then he said never will.”

Decades later, Gilmer is the only black riverboat captain on the Mississippi River and he does his best to teach a little bit of history to everyone he meets.

“What do you think he would say today?” asked WREG’s Symone Woolridge.

“You know what, I thought about that,” he replied with a laugh.

Months ago Gilmer said he took home a Living Legend Award from the New Sardis Baptist Church commending his work on the river.

Now his goal is to just touch the lives of every traveler on the Island Queen.

“I`m trying to encourage them that if I`ve made it, you can make it.”

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