First Published: 2012-11-21

 

Historians scramble to dig up details of America’s earliest Muslims

 

Archaeologists of all backgrounds are scrambling to locate body, belongings of Muslim buried in Washington, DC nearly 200 years ago, for it touches soul of early American history.

 

Middle East Online

By Julienne Gage - WASHINGTON, DC

Sold into slavery as teenager in Senegal

For most Muslims, what happens to the body of a deceased person is not quite as important as what happens to that person’s soul. Still, historians of all backgrounds are scrambling to locate the body and belongings of a Muslim buried in Washington, DC nearly 200 years ago, for it touches the soul of early American history.

The deceased, Yarrow Mamout, was among tens of thousands – if not millions - of Muslims brought to America during the slave trade, but one of few for which historians have much information.

Historic documents suggest Yarrow may be buried on the property he purchased after gaining his independence in 1797. That land is located in Washington’s historic Georgetown neighbourhood where homes now sell for several million dollars. Its owner, real estate developer Deyi Awadallah, hopes to build and sell a new residence on the property. He knew nothing of Yarrow when he purchased the land last spring, but he’s willing to give archaeologists a chance – a few weeks or months - to investigate before he finalises his plans.

“I’m trying to respect the situation. It deserves that,” he said in an interview this month.

According to James H. Johnston, Yarrow was sold into slavery as a teenager in Senegal in 1752. The Washington-based lawyer and freelance writer spent eight years investigating Yarrow’s story for his 2012 book From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamout and the History of an African American Family.

“He was quite famous in his time, but (since that era), nobody had ever looked into who he was,” said Johnston. The inspiration for Johnston’s research came after he saw two portraits of Yarrow, aristocratic depictions of an African American man that dated back to the days of slavery. The more popular of the two was painted by renowned early American artist Charles William Peale, and it resides at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. For Johnston, it represents dignity, perseverance, and resilience during a particularly dark chapter of American history.

“People have been impressed by it because you’re looking at this beautiful portrait of a seemingly wealthy man, and yet he’d been subjected to the horrid conditions of slavery,” said Johnston.

Yarrow was well known in the Georgetown community. He was a body servant for Samuel Beall and his son Brooke, two influential professionals who regularly rubbed shoulders with the likes of founding US President George Washington. He was often remembered as cheerful, diligent and very devout in his faith, stopping to pray five times a day wherever he was.

Yarrow was also an entrepreneur who could read and write. In Georgetown, slaves were allowed to have their own side businesses, so Yarrow became a brick maker. In fact, he won his freedom by building a home for his masters and saved his money to build his own house.

These details make Yarrow a “major footnote” in history, says Amir Muhammad, director of Washington’s Islamic Heritage Museum.

“It shows people that Muslim Americans are a part of the American fabric. He’s a real personality, not only in paintings but in his works and deeds,” he said.

For Washington DC’s official archaeologist Ruth Trocolli, any archaeological traces of Yarrow help the public to better understand how slaves, especially Muslim ones, may have lived.

“That’s a parallel source of data on Yarrow that we can’t access any other way,” said Trocolli, who began a reconnaissance mission on the property this week.

But the recovery effort is challenging. A few years ago, archaeologists discovered a small cemetery with the graves of five African Americans from that era on land bordering the back of Yarrow’s land, but none of the bodies matched the description of an elderly Yarrow.

Yarrow’s house was demolished more than a century ago and the one now sitting on that property is due to be demolished because it is structurally unsound. A swimming pool in the back yard inhibits some opportunities for excavation. But Trocolli is hopeful the exposed parts of the Yarrow property might contain original features such as a well, a latrine, a cellar, or Yarrow’s grave.

“Yarrow’s story is significant,” said Trocolli. “It’s a story about a person who persevered. He was a slave who essentially bought his own freedom.”

Awadallah admits he has a much greater interest in the business of real estate than in historic properties, but as a Muslim American of Palestinian descent, he acknowledges the reconnaissance process is serendipitous.

“I knew there were African Slaves that were Muslims I just didn’t know they were this close to home – just five miles from my home in Falls Church, Virginia,” he said.

Julienne Gage is a freelance multimedia journalist and cultural anthropologist based in Washington, DC. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 20 November 2012, www.commongroundnews.org

 

Bombs rip through Baghdad hotel car parks

Yemen shelling kills two Saudi border guards

Nusra Front chief pledges no attacks on West

Kerry set to launch final diplomatic push for Iran nuclear talks

Merryland Park: A missed symbol of liberal Egypt

Syria revenues shrink under rebel control

Blair resignation widely welcomed by Palestinians

Qatar pledges $50 mn to Indonesia for sheltering Rohingya migrants

Al-Jazeera interview with Nusra leader draws criticism

Palestinians 'open' to every scenario on FIFA vote on Israel

Iran defends spy trial of US journalist

Iraq exhumed remains of 470 bodies from Tikrit mass graves

Coalition raids target headquarters of rebel troops in Yemen capital

Iraq operation to liberate Anbar faces barrage of criticism

EU calls for resumption of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks

Fast pace of executions in Saudi Arabia 'very disturbing'

Tunisia begins hearings into ex-regime's rights abuses

‘Islamic State’ executes 20 men in ruins of Syria ancient city

Saudi Arabia announces sanctions against two Hezbollah leaders

Libya to fight aggression with 'strength'

Iran says nuclear talks could go beyond deadline

Hamas accused of committing war crimes against civilians

German court rejects Yemenis' case over US drone killings

Kuwait emir urges Muslim states to fight extremism

NY Times journalist has Turkish citizenship revoked

Military site inspections necessary to Iran deal

Iraqi forces on outskirts of Ramadi

Syrian refugees ignored at Turkey poll campaign

Director 'shocked' at Morocco’s prostitution film ban

Libya PM survives assassination attempt

US criticises Shiite name of Iraqi military operation

Israel warplanes strike Gaza after rocket attack

Pro-government fighters retake Yemen city from Shiite rebels

Libya militias trap civilians in Benghazi

EU border agency plans to expand migrant rescue operation

Syria state TV blames ‘foreign enemies’ for signal jamming

Palestinians and jihadists clash in Yarmouk

Iraq refugees forced back into conflict zones

Kuwait restores Islamist lawmaker's citizenship

Washington Post reporter goes on trial behind closed doors in Iran

Iraq launches operation to drive ‘Islamic State’ from Anbar

New airport in restive eastern Turkey

Iran ‘thwarts’ US cyber attack on Oil Ministry’

Egypt opens border crossing with Gaza for 48 hours

Litany of problems keep Iraqi army weak and ineffective