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Commentary

Washington uncovers the earliest US Muslims

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, D.C., 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 neighborhood, 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 finalizes his plans. “I’m trying to respect the situation. It deserves that,” Awadallah 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 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 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,” Johnston said.

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 U.S. President George Washington. He was often remembered as cheerful, diligent and 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’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 recently began a reconnaissance mission on the property.

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, 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. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service (www.commongroundnews.org).

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 01, 2012, on page 7.

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