A LOST COMMUNITY, A FORGOTTEN HISTORY: REDISCOVERED THROUGH COMMUNITY ARCHAEOLOGY
Would you believe me if I told you that Islam was present in America before the U.S. constitution was written? What about two Muslim brothers from Morocco helped Columbus navigate to the New World? Or, that between 600,000 to 1.2 million enslaved Africans were Muslim?
Three years ago I would not have believed myself. These are three tiny facts that allude to the legacy of African Islam in America. Different from Orthodox Islam, African Islam was brought over by the hundreds of thousands of enslaved persons who were ripped from their homes, their families, their lives. Present in North Africa since the 8th century and firmly established by the rise of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, African Islam is a unique blend of traditional religions and customs with Islamic beliefs and practices. Originally, Islam in West Africa was seen as an elite faith of traders and rulers before it was adopted by agrarian people.
So who were these people?
The Muslim men, women, and children brought over on cargo ships to the New World established the true roots of Islam in America. It was no mistake that they were sold into slavery. Scholars suggest that a number of political, religion, and social reasons why they were targeted. They were enslaved through a variety of military conquests, which established a regular slave trade, over a period of more than 350 years and sold as prisoners. Abductions were a less costly, less dangerous, but also less lucrative than military conquests. Regardless of how they were forcibly removed from their homelands, there are several key characteristics of this group.
A large majority of enslaved Muslims were urban, in many cases well-travelled, and literate. In Islam, literacy in Arabic is of prime importance because Muslims rely on the Quran to understand the religion and guide them in their daily life; provide them with the right prayers for different circumstances; and to instruct them on legal matters and proper social behavior. In fact literacy was so widespread in Senegal that the French estimated that as many as 60 percent of all Senegalese were literate in Arabic. In addition to their literacy, African Muslims were bilingual at the very least, speaking Arabic and their native tongue, and at best trilingual or better, having previously learned Turkish or one of the many other European languages.
In 2015, the District of Columbia’s Historic Preservation Office had a unique opportunity to explore the only currently known property that once belonged to an African Muslim. In 2012, James H. Johnston, author of “From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamout and the History of an African American Family”, contacted Dr. Ruth Trocolli, the City Archaeologist for the District of Columbia, about the property at 3324 Dent Place, NW. Johnston and the immediate neighbors were concerned that the historical integrity of the property would be destroyed due to private and/or commercial development. In 1800, the property was purchased by Yarrow Mamout.
Not much is known about Mamout’s early life. He was born ca. 1736 in West Africa and was taken when he was around 16. He arrived in Annapolis, Maryland in 1752 aboard the Elijah and
was purchased by Samuel Beall, a wealthy member of the Maryland social and political scene. Mamout served as Beall’s body servant until Beall’s death in 1777, at which point he was willed to Beall’s son Issac. Mamout eventually have the property of Beall’s other son, Brooke, who brought Mamout, along with his family and other enslaved persons, to Georgetown in 1788 or 1789. Around this time, Mamout’s only child, a son named Aquilla, was born to an enslaved woman on a neighboring farm.
Mamout was granted his freedom in August 1796, several months before purchasing his son’s freedom, with the stipulation that he must first make bricks for Beall’s new house in Upper Georgetown. Though Brooke Beall died before the house was completed, his wife, Margaret, kept his promise. Mamout and Margaret note that this freedom was made with the purest of promises—a reward for being a good and faithful servant. On February 8, 1800 Mamout purchased the property at 3324 Dent Place, N.W., and according to the census, listed Mamout and another person (likely Aquilla) as living there. Though the original deed to the property has been either lost or destroyed, a deed book kept by the Recorder of Deedes still exists. It is believed that Mamout was literate in Arabic because he signed his name in Arabic on the deed.
Mamout became well-known after sitting for a formal portrait by Charles Wilson Peale in 1819. Peale was visiting Georgetown to paint President James Monroe for the collection of presidential portraits at Peale’s museum in Philadelphia. Peale has heard that a man was rumored to be 143 years old and decided to meet him. Over the course of two days, Peale recorded his interaction with Mamout in his diary. A second portrait of Mamout was completed by the 18 year old James Alexander Simpson in 1822, a year before Mamout’s death.
When Mamout died on January 19, 1823, Peale wrote Mamout’s obituary and sent it to numerous newspapers, including the Gettysburg Complier. The obituary reads:
Died—at Georgetown on the 19th ultimo, Negro Yarrow, aged (according to [Peale’s] account) 136 years. He was interred in the corner of his garden, the spot where he usually resorted to pray. . . it is known to all that knew him, that he was industrious, honest, and moral—in the early part of his life he met with several losses by loaning money, which he never got, but he preserved in industry and economy, and accumulated some Bank stock and a house and lot, on which he lived comfortably in his old age—Yarrow was never known to eat swine, nor drink ardent spirits.”
Following Mamout’s death, tax records indicate that the property at 3324 Dent Place, NW passed to his heirs. Aquilla or another person continued paying taxes on the property in 1832, the same year that Aquilla died. The property stayed in Aquilla’s name in 1838, when the city of Georgetown auctioned it off to recover $100 in unpaid taxes.
What does this have to do with community?
Although a significant portion of the enslaved population in the Americas were Muslim, scholarly research of Muslims in the American colonial and antebellum periods has been limited. To date, the most extensive research on enslaved African Muslims in the field of historical archaeology is chronicled in my dissertation, “How Religion Preserved the Man: Exploring the History and Legacy of African Islam through the Yarrow Mamout (ca 1736-1823) Archaeology Project.” Without a local community concerned about the historical integrity of the small Georgetown property, this community would have continued to be lost, their history forgotten. And yet, just as Islam sustained their bodies and minds through the peculiar institution of slavery, Islam helped preserved the community, history, and enduring legacy of enslaved African Muslims.
Dr. Mia L. Carey is an alumni of Howard University (BA Anthropology and Sociology ’11) and the University of Florida (MA ’14 and PhD ’17). She currently serves as the Acting Civil War to Civil Rights National Coordinator in the National Park Service’s Cultural Resource Office of Interpretation and Education as well as served as a Web Developer for the National Park Service’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office. In her spare time she travels, is an amateur chef, and a devoted dog mom to two Labradors and a white German Shepherd.