Reviving an old hero
Reenactor brings back to life slave who fought in revolutionary cause
LEXINGTON — Under the glow of a full moon, Charles H. Price Jr. peered from the window of Buckman Tavern yesterday, fiddling with his musket in the minutes before dawn.
Thousands of spectators encircled the Battle Green, digital cameras at the ready. But Price’s mind, along with those of the men around him, was in 1775, their anxiety at the approach of the Redcoats as real as their haversacks, breeches, and scratchy overcoats.
The only difference was that Price — like the character he plays, the enslaved Prince Estabrook — was the sole African-American in the room. For 36 years, the retired electrical engineer has evoked Estabrook, gathering at 4 a.m. with the knowledge that he will be wounded by 6:15: the first black soldier ever to fight and take a musket shot, for what would become the United States.
“Sometimes, I wish it was possible to talk to him,’’ said Price, who served in a segregated unit 175 years after Estabrook stood alongside white militiamen. “This is a no-win situation as far as he’s concerned. Let’s say the Minutemen win, which is kind of unlikely. He’s still just a slave. Let’s say the Minutemen lose. He’s a slave who fired on the king’s troops.
“He’s in big trouble no matter what happens.’’
Estabrook, about 34 at the time, recovered from his wound and went on to fight eight years for the militia and Continental Army, one of about 5,000 mostly forgotten men of color to fight with the revolutionary cause. He emerged a free man; slavery in the Commonwealth was abolished by judicial decision in 1783, just before the end of the war.
Price knew nothing of Estabrook when a neighbor, Bob Martin, talked him into joining the Lexington Minute Men, the reenactment company and social organization, back in 1975. His lawnmower was broken, and he went next door to borrow Martin’s.
“He says: ‘. . . It’s hot out there. You don’t want to go out there in the middle of the day. Why don’t you just sit down? We’ll have a few cool ones,’ ’’ recalled Price, a youthful Korean War-era veteran. “While we’re sitting in his house watching the
The next thing he knew, Price attended a meeting and was immediately given the role of Estabrook, “an offer I couldn’t refuse.’’
With commitment to authenticity, each of the members plays one of the 76 Lexington citizen-soldiers who mustered that day under Captain John Parker; the Minute Men had never had an African-American member before.
Price, like the others who return year after year, fell in love with the camaraderie of the group, the pageantry, and the adrenaline rush amid the “huzzahs,’’ the crack of musket fire, and the swirl of smoke and the sulfurous smell cloaking the battlefield. He rose to commander of the organization, leading it from 1984 to 1986, an honor that he says marked the first time a Minuteman reenactor group anywhere had a black leader.
Raised in Roxbury, Price grew up amid history, in the backyard of the Revolutionary War hero Joseph Warren, six houses down from a statue of Warren. Every
In the early 1950s, Price’s studies at Northeastern were interrupted when his National Guard unit was deployed during the Korean War, albeit in Europe. President Truman had already issued the executive order desegregating the military, but racial separation persisted.
“It was the law, but there wasn’t much attention paid to it,’’ Price said.
Returning home, he finished school and headed to California, working on the Atlas missile program. He came back and settled in Lexington in 1964, holding tech and defense jobs along Route 128.
Price’s enthusiasm for history led him out of retirement in 2001 to become a Minute Man National Historical Park ranger. He also assisted the late Alice M. Hinkle, a local journalist, in the years of digging that produced her book “Prince Estabrook: Slave and Soldier,’’ an illustrated text. Three years ago, he helped Hinkle’s widower secure a monument for Estabrook outside Buckman Tavern, across from the Green.
With no surviving likeness of Estabrook, the image engraved on the monument is that of Price heading for the Green. Much remains a mystery about the soldier, who took his surname from his master, Benjamin Estabrook, and continued to live and work with the family throughout his 90 years. He followed Benjamin’s son, Nathan, to Ashby in 1805 and died there in 1830, buried in the pauper section of the First Parish Church cemetery.
“He was just one of the group,’’ said Price, as the sun rose. A few minutes before 6, he took his position under a broad tree outside the tavern, awaiting the arrival of the scout signaling the approach of the Redcoats. Captain Parker ordered him and two others to fire alarm shots, and then the militia gathered on the green.
Within 15 minutes, the skirmish was over: a lopsided victory for the British, but a Pyrrhic one. As the smoke cleared, Price, as Estabrook, lay on the grass with the other casualties, for the 36th time. Soon they would rise again.
Eric Moskowitz can be reached at EMoskowitz@globe.com.