Diversity at Sea: Old North Illuminated Honors the Commander of the USS Constitution

By Michael Maler

Many know the USS Constitution as the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world, and perhaps even of its victories in battle during the War of 1812 when the ship gained the nickname Old Ironsides. But alongside a glorious history of service, one of the most iconic ships in the U.S. Navy has a lesser-known history that might come as a surprise: one of diversity and the struggle for equal opportunity.

In a blog post on the USS Constitution Museum website, Robert J. Allison, historian, author, and professor of History at Suffolk University tells us that even before the ship left the United States to sail around the world in 1844, the crew was multi-national, composed of 195 foreigners and 220 native-born Americans. The Museum’s list of the ship’s crew over the centuries reveals that diversity aboard the Constitution was evident long before 1844, with its roots tied to Beacon Hill.

David Debias was born in Boston on Aug. 9, 1806. He lived with his parents on Belknap Street (now Joy Street) on the north slope of Beacon Hill—a predominantly African American community. The Museum points out that we don’t know the real story of David’s early life, but speculates that his father may have worked as a laborer along the waterfront which, given his eight-year-old son’s limited prospects, may account for the decision to send David to sea aboard the Constitution in December of 1814.

David was rated a “boy,” the lowest ranking sailor on a ship. Most work aboard ship was dirty and monotonous, and David’s duties would have included bringing gun powder from the magazine in the hold to the gun deck. In 1821, he sailed on the Constitution to the Mediterranean Sea before returning to the United States in 1824 to join the merchant service.

David’s story embodies the struggle for equality among Black Americans against discrimination prevalent in the early 19th century. The path for women in the U.S. Navy has also been long and challenging. According to the Department of Defense, in 1917 Loretta P. Walsh became the first enlisted woman; however, it was not until 1986 that Rosemarie Lanam Wilamowski became the first enlisted woman to join the crew of USS Constitution. Lieutenant Commander Claire V. Bloom became the first female commissioned officer to serve in 1996, and most recently, when Commander Billie June (BJ) Farrell assumed command of USS Constitution in 2022, she became the first female commanding officer in the ship’s long and storied history.

On Thursday April 11, 2024, Commander Farrell will be honored and present the Third Lantern Award keynote address at the Old North Illuminated’s annual fundraiser “Lanterns & Luminaries,” celebrating Paul Revere’s famous “two if by sea” lantern signal. The event will feature festive music, a spirited performance of the poem “Paul Revere’s Ride,” a lantern-lighting reenactment with Paul Revere on horseback, and the ability to explore Old North’s sanctuary and newly restored crypt.

Tickets can be purchased at the Old North Church’s website (www.oldnorth.com).

Michael Maler is  the founder of Crescendo Productions (crescendoproductions-arts.com), as well as a Beacon Hill resident.

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