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Museum Celebrates One of the First Muslims in America

WASHINGTON – Drawing a wider image for America’s origins and history, the National Portrait Gallery has added an oil portrait of Yarrow Mamout, one of the first American Muslims, to get his place among presidents and generals.

“We just wanted to kind of complicate the narrative of American history, and start to figure out different stories that haven’t necessarily been told, or have been lost,” Asma Naeem, associate curator at the National Portrait Gallery, told Washington Post on Thursday, August 12.

“He was somebody who represented the diversity of the American fabric of the 1820s, and he was really given an honorable likeness.”

Yarrow 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.

Thrifty and hard-working, Yarrow was allowed to earn money on the side even as a slave.

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Once free, he continued making bricks, charcoal and baskets and doing other work. He saved his money, bought land and lived in a log house at what is now 3324 Dent Place NW.

His property is the only one in the United States “known to have been owned and occupied by a slave brought from Africa,” according to James H. Johnston, author of “From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamout and the History of an African American Family.”

Historic documents suggest Yarrow may be buried on the property he purchased after gaining his independence in 1797.

Mia Carey, a doctoral candidate at the University of Florida in Gainesville, the field director on the project, said that about a third of the Africans brought in chains to the American shores were Muslims.

“African Muslims fought in the war of 1812, the Civil War, the American Revolution,” Carey says.

“They’ve been here and been present since before this country was a country.”

Yarrow’s story “helps us combat that negative stereotype that this is a foreign religion,” says Carey, whose dissertation-in-progress on the presence of African Muslims in early America is called, “How Religion Preserved the Man: Exploring the Legacy of African Islam through the Yarrow Mamout Archaeology Project.”

Living Legacy

Yarrow also was one of few to arrive on a slave ship whose likeness survives in celebrated oil portraits.

He sat for artists at least twice. First, in 1819, he was painted by Charles Willson Peale, who also painted George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

Peale’s stately image of Yarrow with a whimsical wise half-smile hangs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The other oil portrait was painted by James Alexander Simpson in 1822, and is at the portrait gallery on a three-year loan from the Peabody Room of the Georgetown branch of the DC Public Library.

Simpson, who was about 17 when he painted Yarrow, wasn’t as accomplished as Peale, but he went on to teach art at Georgetown University.

“This work is more intimate, more simplistic, heartwarming,” Naeem says of Simpson’s Yarrow compared to Peale’s.

The red waistcoat and blue jacket that Yarrow wears resemble the Sunday uniform of Georgetown students back then.

“It shows a man whose face is lined with wrinkles, whose hands are tender, well worn, whose eyes are a bit downcast, but sensitive,” Naeem says.

“It’s really a wonderful depiction, a sensitive depiction of an individual who really would never have had the opportunity” to receive such attention if he had not captured the imagination and affection of Washingtonians then — and now.

Yarrow’s legacy lives today in surprising places such as the Yaro Collective, a group of young professional Muslims in the Washington area who organize and publicize cultural and community events.

The collective is named after an alternative spelling of Yarrow.

He died in 1823, at about the age of 87. The 220th anniversary of his freedom from slavery is Aug. 22.