Tracing Roots: African American Muslim Who Settled in DC

Community News


In light of Black History Month, on Saturday Feb. 2, from 3 to 4 p.m., author James H. Johnston delivered a lecture about the history of a Muslim African American slave, Yarrow Mamout and his family, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C.  Johnston shared excerpts from his book, “From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamout and the history of an African American family,” and presented evidence from his research.

Johnston revealed that Yarrow Mamout is known because his portrait was painted by Charles Willson Peale, an artist who is well-known for painting portraits of presidents. 
Out of the 9.4 million people who were enslaved, only two portraits were painted, one of which is Peale’s piece featuring Mamout.

“Peale painted the portrait to show the world that Black people are equal to White people and there’s no difference,” Johnston said. 

Mamout and his family were traced back to colonial America, the Civil War and modern times.  Johnston inferred Mamout was born in 1736, and was 16 years old when he first came to America in 1756. 

Johnston discussed how Virginia became a Tobacco economy that employed a workforce -- slavery.  When Mamout first came to America, the Beall family imported him from the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, which brought in 9,000 slaves to the new world, according to Johnston. 

Mamout’s story is known today because he was an educated slave who knew how to read and write.  He originally came from Mali and was a Fulani Muslim who knew the Quran, spoke Arabic, French and some English when he came to America.  Johnston showed the audience of both Muslims and non-Muslims a sample of Mamout’s writing which was poetic in nature. 

When Mamout was 60 years old, his master, Brooke Beall, died and Mamout was set free.  Mamout bought a house in Georgetown and signed the deed with “Bismillah.” Johnston speculates that Mamout’s body may be buried in his Georgetown residence. 

Johnston went through Mamout’s family history and traced their roots and found descendants in Rockville, Md.  In addition, Johnston found a Yarrowsburg road in Washington County, Md.   
Taqiyyah Day, also called, Umm Towfiq, attended the lecture with her son.  As an African American Muslim resident in D.C., Day thought it was important to attend the event.  “I came because I knew he lived in Georgetown and I was born in Georgetown hospital,” Day said.

“I learned that the lives of slaves and their masters were intermingled,” and “though enslaved, the slaves had love and commerce -- you wouldn’t expect that,” Day said.