ING Celebrates Black History Month Week 2: Explore the Roots of American Muslims in the United States

Continuing our celebration of Black History Month, which was introduced last week, this week we would like to share three stories of African American Muslims enslaved in the Americas: Yarrow Mamout, Omar ibn Said and Prince Abdul Rahman. Their stories reminds us of a time where people struggled for their very freedom, and in many cases could not even practice their religion openly.

Yarrow Mamout (1736-1823)

Yarrow Mamout was taken from his home in what is today Guinea on the western coast of Africa when he was only 16 years old and sold to Samuel Beall in Maryland.  After Beall died, he was able to win his freedom due to his education and skills. He made a life for himself in Georgetown, and became well-respected there both for his industry and skills and for his steadfast adherence to his Muslim faith. His local fame and advanced age inspired this portrait by Charles Wilson Peale who also painted portraits of the founding fathers George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, who lived at the same time as Yarrow.  Peale wrote in 1819 that Yarrow Mamout was known to be “honest, courageous, and serious and well liked by everyone.” Peale added: “He professes to be a Mahometan, and is often seen and heard in the streets singing Praises to God— and conversing with him.”

Omar ibn Said (1770-1864)

Omar ibn Said was one of 15 children born to a wealthy Fulani family in Futa Toro, which is in present-day Senegal in West Africa.  He spent the majority of his life before enslavement studying with prominent Muslim scholars, and was fluent in Arabic. He has been described as having a level of education equivalent to a Ph.D.  Omar was captured during a military conflict in 1807 and sold into the Atlantic Slave Trade.  After serving a harsh slave-owner in Charleston, South Carolina, he fled to Fayetteville, North Carolina before being recaptured and resold to James Owen – a wealthy man whose brother would later become governor of the state. Omar continued to study religion informally, and became something of a public intellectual.  When the family moved to Wilmington, Christian ministers would discuss their sermons with him. People came from many places to visit Omar, and newspapers wrote about him as well. Two portraits of him were done, and when he died an obituary was posted. Such honors were highly unusual for an enslaved Black person in the South. In 1831, Omar wrote his autobiography in Arabic, the only such work written by a slave in one of his native languages. He was still a slave at the time of his death in 1864 when he was over ninety years old. He was buried in Bladen County, North Carolina.  In 1991, a mosque was named after him, and in 2010 the state erected a historical marker honoring him.

Prince Abdul Rahman ibn Ibrahim Sori (1762-1829)

Abdul Rahman ibn Ibrahim Sori was the son of the ruler of Futa Djallon, which is in today’s Guinea. After being captured and sold to slave traders at the age of 26, he was bought by a man in Natchez, Mississippi and eventually became the overseer of the plantation of Thomas Foster. In 1794 he married another slave, Isabella, and they had a large family of five sons and four daughters. After Abdul Rahman told him that he was royalty, and that his family could pay his ransom, the man started to call him “Prince” because of the noble way he carried himself and his high self-esteem.  After 40 years of working for his freedom, it was finally granted to him and his wife by order of President John Quincy Adams in response to a request by the Sultan of Morocco.  The couple made their way to Liberia in 1828, but Ibrahim died before he had a chance to see the kingdom of his birth again. Isabella settled in Liberia and was followed there by two of the sons that she and Abdul Rahman had managed to liberate. Their other children, and their grandchildren, remained in the United States. Historian, Terry Alford, wrote a book about Abdul Rahman in 1986, and in 2009 his story was made into a documentary film by Unity Productions Foundation. Both the book and film are entitled Prince Among Slaves.

Many of these early African American Muslims are discussed in depth in our presentation A History of Muslims in America. To request this presentation, write to ING scheduler Henry Millstein at [email protected] or go to Schedule a Presentation and select A History of Muslims in America presentation.

For more information about Prince Abdul Rahman see Unity Production Foundation and PBS’s Docudrama Prince Among Slaves:

For lesson plans for this film for teachers please click here.

For more information on Omar ibn Said, see the new edition of his autobiography – A Muslim American Slave: The Life of Omar ibn Said

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