Charles Wilson Peale, the famed American painter, would have never guessed an obituary he wrote for Yarrow Mamout in 1823 would lead to the first known excavation of a property associated with an identifiable African Muslim in the United States almost 200 years later. In 2015, days after the 263rd anniversary of Mamout’s arrival in British North America, I was part of the team of archaeologists who broke ground on the Upper Georgetown property that, according to Peale, Yarrow purchased in February 1800. Nestled between million-dollar homes in a predominantly white neighborhood, Mamout’s property was a tangible piece of America’s forgotten history of the early presence of Islam and a stark reminder of the erasure of a once vibrant black community. Combatting two widely held assumptions, that Islam was a relatively recent arrival and that immigrant Muslims and their children were the true representations of Islam in America, the excavation of Mamouts’ property helped renew conversations about who has the ‘right’ to be an American and spark a deeper inquiry into Islam’s early history in America.
Though we conducted an exhaustive investigation of the property, we have not, yet, found definitive evidence of Mamout in the archaeological record. Despite what many archaeologists would consider negative data, it was the seemingly absence of artifacts that could be associated with Mamout that most intrigued me – we knew it was his property and that he lived there for a number of years before his death, but he was, effectively, silenced in the landscape. While we can attribute this silence to the continuous occupation and development of the site, I questioned how and why hundreds of thousands of other enslaved African Muslims were silenced in the landscape and in American history. Their role cannot be contested. For example, research has documented at least six enslaved African Muslims participated in the American Revolutionary War under General George Washington; their imprint in the Battle of Derma and the Mameluke Sword carried by the U.S. Marine Corps; and their participation in the War of 1812 and the Civil War. So why have they been silenced?
For the last five years, I have researched the history of Islam within the African American/Black community and found that, while the version Islam brought by enslaved Africans had disappeared as a conscious practice by the eve of the Civil War, it reemerged as African Americans were seeking alternative strategies to combat white supremacy and racial oppression. Its message of black liberation and economic self-sufficiency promulgated by groups such as the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam, particularly under Elijah and Clara Muhammad, gave African Americans hope. Deeply influenced by Pan-Africanism and Black Nationalism, the version of Islam that emerged in the first quarter of the 20th century among northern, urban, working class African American communities laid the roots of Islam in the United States.
This history has been silenced because it does not fit the dominant (white, male, Christian) narrative and it demonstrates a long history of systemic racism and violence against black bodies. The destruction of historic African American sites, through private and commercial development, seeks to further silence and erase these stories on the landscape–stories which paint a vibrant picture of what it truly means to be American. As we honor Yarrow Mamout this week, we must remember to honor the thousands of other enslaved African Muslims, who have been rendered invisible, by telling their stories and fighting for freedom, justice, and equality.
Dr. Mia L. Carey is the former field director of the 2015 Yarrow Mamout Archaeology Project. She is currently the National Park Service Mellon Humanities Fellow in the Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement.