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

 

Egypt blacklists Hamas armed wing as ‘terrorist organization’

UN chief backs African force to fight Boko Haram

Party of Yemen ex-president breaks boycott to join Huthi meeting

Concern rises in Japan as hostage negotiations hit 'deadlock'

Wary of Internet, jihadists change communication strategy

Who plotted assassination of Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh?

Bahrain revokes citizenship of 72 unrest convicts

AU: Ignoring South Sudan findings will help the guilty

Hezbollah warns it does not fear new war with Israel

Saudi blogger’s flogging postponed for third week

Iran seeks good relations with Saudi Arabia

Jordan still kept in the dark over pilot fate

Syria’s Qaeda fights Western-backed rebels

Abbas to visit Stockholm after Palestine recognised

UN chief to African leaders: do not 'cling to power'

Israel to go ahead with 430 new West Bank settler homes

Libya rivals to join peace talks if held on home soil

New Saudi king announces sweeping cabinet shake-up

Deadly Sinai attacks force Sisi to cut short overseas trip

Israel reduces energy supplies to Palestinians

Syria opposition embassy in Qatar renews passports

Hezbollah sends message to Israel ‘conflict is over’

Women protest against Egypt police after fatal shooting

Libyan airline suspends flights

Iraq government vows to investigate Diyala massacre

MSF withdraws help from two Sudan states

Jordan wants to see proof pilot alive before exchange

US says thousands of Somali children facing starvation

Kuwait online activists arrested 'over Saudi criticism'

British mosques open doors to reach out to citizens

Iran, Europe officials to meet Thursday in Istanbul

IS issues new deadline to kill Jordanian pilot if demand not met

Netanyahu warns Hezbollah will pay 'full price'

African Union sees no military solution to Libya crisis

Yemen powerful militia prevents fresh protest in Sanaa

Iran appoints new UN ambassador after US visa refusal

Pentagon confirms US involvement in talks with Yemen Huthis

Hezbollah missiles threaten to spark new war in volatile region

In new website, France warns would-be jihadists: You will die alone

Israel retaliates against Hezbollah attack

Can Iraqis trust their government to rebuild their country?

Sheikh Ali Salman rejects charges as trial opens in Bahrain

Protesters try to storm UN headquarters in Gaza

UN peacekeeper killed in southern Lebanon amid border clash

Kobane in ruins after symbolic blow to jihadists