For years, historians of all backgrounds have been 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.
On Feb. 4, the Q Street basement, standing across from Volta Park in Washington, DC, was being renovated when workers found four human skeletons.
According to one Washington historian, at least one set of remains could possibly be those of Yarrow Mamout, an African man captured from Guinea in the 18th century and pressed into slavery in America; he later bought his freedom after years of saving money.
“He was an educated individual. He read and spoke Arabic. He had been kidnapped in West Africa and brought to Maryland,” said Jerry McCoy, a special collections librarian at the DC Public Library, told the Georgetowner.
Jack of All Trades
Thrifty and hard-working, Yarrow was allowed to earn money on the side even as a slave.
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.”
“He was purported to be the strongest swimmer in the Potomac River,” McCoy said. “He was a local legend.”
A forensic investigation is underway to determine if the remains belong to Mamout, a Muslim and a renaissance man known as a jack-of-all-trades in Georgetown.
“[It] would be an incredible discovery if that was able to be determined through DNA,” McCoy said.
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.
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.