The search for Yarrow Mamout
By Candace Wheeler,
The historic Georgetown home is said to be unsalvageable. The two-story brick house was nearly toppled when a large tree crashed into its second story as Hurricane Irene blew through the region in 2011. Now, everyone agrees, it must come down.
What has neighbors and historians concerned, however, isn’t the loss of the house but what may be in its back yard.
Experts believe that Yarrow Mamout, a freed slave made famous by a well-known 19th century painter, may be buried behind the house at 3324 Dent Place NW.
The idea that the remains of the man who became known for his brick-making and financial skills might be buried in Georgetown is not far-fetched. According to old land deeds, Mamout purchased the lot in the early 1800s. Several sets of remains of the neighborhood’s earliest black residents have been unearthed in the past decade.
So historians are asking: Could Mamout still be on his land?
“This is really exciting for African American history in the District,” said Jerry McCoy, a librarian in the Peabody Room of the Georgetown Public Library, where a portrait of Mamout hangs on the wall. “The dead white male history that has overwhelmingly prevailed in this country has left the African American story, as it pertains to Georgetown, very limited, and Yarrow is one of the most fascinating figures.”
A portrait of Mamout by Simpson is on display at the Georgetown library. But it is a canvas by Peale, noted for his paintings of the Founding Fathers, that brought greater attention to Mamout. Peale’s portrait, completed in the last years of Mamout’s life, shows the freedman-turned-entrepreneur with a serene smile. His gray hair peeks out from beneath a knitted cap.
Quite a bit is known about Mamout. He was born in Guinea in 1736. At age 16 he was sold into slavery and brought to the American colonies. He could read and write in Arabic, evidence that historians believe proves that he came from a wealthy Muslim family. Upon arrival in Annapolis, Mamout was sold to the Beall family, whose patriarch founded Georgetown in the late 1690s.
And after more than 40 years in slavery, Mamout gained his freedom. He was 60.
Mamout used his brick-making skills to earn money, and four years after he was freed he had saved enough to purchase a lot on what is now known as Dent Place.
The original home was destroyed. The house that currently sits on the land was built in the late 19th century. But after Hurricane Irene took off part of the roof and caused significant water damage, the Old Georgetown Board, an advisory committee of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, determined that it couldn’t be saved.
Thomas Luekbe, a spokesman for the board, said members are waiting for the developer to submit plans for a replacement structure.
Falls Church-based developer Deyi S. Awadallah purchased the property in May. Awadallah said he appreciates the interest in Mamout’s remains, but he’s skeptical anything will be found.
“Right now a lot of people are interested and excited about the property, but I have my doubts about whether or not he’s really buried there,” Awadallah said. “I’m Muslim myself so it’s kind of intriguing to me, but it’s just a lot of speculation. For now we just have to be patient and see what happens.”
Awadallah has agreed to allow a search for Mamout to go forward.
Ruth Trocolli, the District’s archaeologist, visited the property on Veterans Day and plans to start a preliminary excavation.
James H. Johnston, who wrote a biography of Mamout, “From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamout and the History of an African American Family,” believes more than just remains could be found.
“There could be traces of his life there,” said Johnston, who is hopeful that bricks made by Mamout could be in the cellar of the current home.
If anything associated with the historic figure is found, a few of his living relatives would be eager to see it. While doing research for his book, Johnston discovered that Mamout had relatives by marriage living in Baltimore.
“My brother and I have always wanted to know where we really come from and to trace our roots,” said Robin Truiett-Theodorson, whose great-great-grandfather was the brother of Mamout’s daughter-in-law, Mary Turner.
“To come all the way from Africa as a slave and accomplish everything that he did puts slavery in a whole different light for me, and it would be really neat to see something that once belonged to him,” Truiett-Theodorson said. “Having a link to such a fascinating man is amazing to us.”