Captain Harry Dean Papers

By: T.J. Szafranski (BMRC Processing Intern)

The first collection I processed at the DuSable Museum of African American History was the Captain Harry Dean papers. Captain Dean (1865-1934) was an African-American sailor who supported the Pan-Africanism movement. He believed that the mastery of nautical science was essential to the African race returning to glory in their homeland.

Dean was born in Philadelphia, but didn’t stay on land for long. He took his first sailing trip with his uncle when he was 12, and by his count, circumnavigated Africa 18 times during his life. Many of these voyages took place aboard The Pedro Gorino, the ship he purchased in 1900. After his life at sea, Dean returned to America and established an African-American nautical school in San Francisco. His papers include correspondence, a draft of his autobiography governmental reports and documents, and a few photographs. The real treasures, though, are his diaries—over 100 in total—where Dean mused on subjects ranging from sailing, to business, to politics, to racial inequality, to war, to love, to life itself.

While working on the collection, I couldn’t afford much time to reading his writings (more product, less process!), but once our processing was complete, I took an afternoon to peruse the diaries and correspondence. I found Dean to be passionate, articulate, knowledgeable, ambitious, clever, and just plain interesting. His writings share his critiques—most acerbic and biting, some more positive—on the world he lived in. For those interested in political and social issues of the late 19th and early 20th century, the Captain Harry Dean papers provide a unique insight. My favorite part of the diaries and letters were the endless amount of Dean-isms that I discovered. A Dean-ism is a short nugget of knowledge, straight from the tip of Dean’s pen, that’s part life lesson, part proverb, and part fortune cookie. I came across so many that I had to coin a term for them. Here are a few my favorite Dean-isms.

 "Diligence and intelligence is power"

"What we think we know hurts us oftimes more than what we do not know"

"How different a man is from a machine. With a machine the less friction the better it works. With a man the more friction the better he works"

"If one accumulates knowledge and uses those knowledges in a masterful manner they are wise"

"A race without ships is like a blind man without legs"

"I love you as the loved loves the loving of his love"

"Half our wisdom is but weakness, half our folly is but fate"

"If I must sail from San Francisco to Liberia I should leave in March or April"

That last one wasn’t really a Dean-ism, but it’s valuable information, nonetheless.

If you’re interested in reading more from Captain Harry Dean, check out The Pedro Gorino or make a trip to the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago.