February 1, 2007 — Vol. 42, No. 25
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The ‘Strange’ tale of a black Boston sailor

Dan Devine

While Black History Month often focuses on the stories of figures whose exploits grabbed headlines, the tales of lives never before explored can sometimes prove equally compelling.

One such historical afterthought will take center stage next Wednesday night, giving a 19th century black sailor from Beacon Hill named David Debias a chance to live again.

Presented by the USS Constitution Museum and hosted by the Museum of African American History, “Stranger in a Strange Land: The Journey of a Black Sailor from Beacon Hill to the Decks of USS Constitution” mixes historical research with theatrical storytelling to provide a different perspective on the lives of black sailors who served during the War of 1812.

Lauren McCormack, research coordinator at the Constitution Museum, began digging into Debias’ story in the summer of 2005, and found his experience uniquely gripping.

“We just thought it was such an interesting story that really brought together various aspects of the African American experience during the early 19th century,” said McCormack. “It really dealt with a lot of the problems that African Americans, even those from the North, faced … It’s a very thought provoking story.”

Rashaun Martin, program director of history at Boston Latin School, has played Debias in performances at the Constitution Museum since last July, and will step into the role once again next Wednesday. The teacher sees the role not only as an opportunity to shed light on an oft-overlooked chapter in African American history, but also as a chance to inject lifeblood into an experience that might seem dull viewed in the context of a reference book.

“It gives me a chance to make [Debias’] memory come alive for others, and I think that any time you can make history personal for people, you’re going to have a better opportunity to connect them to the experience,” Martin said. “It’s certainly better than learning from a textbook, with a bunch of dates and dead guys.”

According to research compiled by the Museum, Debias was born a free black on Aug. 9, 1806 on Belknap Street. He first enlisted in the Navy at the age of 9, earning $6 a month for his work, which included acting as a servant to an officer.

Debias participated in the Constitution’s War of 1812 victory over the British frigates HMS Cyane and HMS Levant, and later traveled with the ship to such far-flung ports as Gibraltar, Genoa, Malta and Algiers. After being discharged from the service for the second time in 1824, Debias pursued a career sailing on private merchant ships. Roughly a decade later, his story turned sinister.

Sometime in late 1837 or early 1838, Debias traveled to Mobile, Ala., and he was arrested soon after in Winchester, Miss., as a runaway slave. On March 16, 1838, with a trial set to start several weeks later, Judge Thomas P. Falconer wrote a letter on Debias’ behalf to the Department of the Navy to request evidence supporting the sailor’s claims that he was, indeed, a free man.

“I have not the least doubt of his freedom, but his appearance may force upon him the onus probandi [burden of proof] of freedom,” Falconer wrote. “He is a stranger in a strange land, and from the rigidness of law in the absence of testimony he may be deprived of his liberty …”

Without evidence of any wrongdoing except committing the cardinal sin of being black in Mississippi in 1838, Debias was placed under arrest. What makes his story all the more troubling is that nobody knows what happened to him. All records from Wayne County, Miss., Courthouse were destroyed in a fire, and no reply from the Department of the Navy corroborating Debias’ status as a free man has ever been found.

McCormack and company are still looking for more information about Debias’ fate, but as it now stands, the mystery itself makes the story more gripping — if disturbing.

“I think it heightens the impact of it, because … it makes people think — it’s not a happy ending necessarily. We don’t know,” she said. “It might have been, but it might also have been a pretty horrible ending.”

Regardless of the uncertainty surrounding how the story ends, Martin said he believes it contains two messages that make it well worth the telling.

“One, I think that you want to convey to the audience that there is a connection between the past and the present, and that ultimately the USS Constitution and the men who served onboard that ship served for them, even if it was 200 years ago. And that it is their ship, and that it has a place in our collective conscious today,” he said. “Also, I believe that you want to share that underlying African American history, about those unsung heroes that don’t always get their proper due in the history books.”

“Stranger in a Strange Land,” Feb. 7; Museum of African American History, Abiel Smith School Gallery, 46 Joy Street, Boston. The event is free of charge, but seating is on a first-come, first-served basis. For more information, call 617-742-5415.

Rashaun Martin plays David Debias, a black sailor on the USS Constitution during the War of 1812, in “Stranger in a Strange Land” next Wednesday at the Museum of African American History. (Photo courtesy of the USS Constitution Museum)

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