He’s in good company, this freed slave, a Muslim who became a landowner and a local celebrity in Georgetown at a time when that was almost unthinkable for someone of his background.
Look around this particular room in the American Origins section of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and you’ll see depicted several great white heroes (William Henry Harrison, Oliver Hazard Perry, Winfield Scott), one notable Native American (Red Jacket) and, in a place of honor (facing, as it happens, Babe Ruth across the corridor), our new acquaintance: Yarrow Mamout.
An oil portrait of Yarrow — as he was known — was recently hung at the gallery to add another nuance to the larger, collective portrait of America that the institution tries to present. It 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 D.C. Public Library.
“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,” says Asma Naeem, associate curator at the National Portrait Gallery. “He was somebody who represented the diversity of the American fabric of the 1820s, and he was really given an honorable likeness.”
Born in about 1736, Yarrow was abducted from Guinea in West Africa and enslaved at about the age of 16. He became a body servant to Samuel Beall of Maryland and lived on a plantation in Takoma Park and on other Beall family properties, according to James H. Johnston, author of “From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamout and the History of an African American Family.” The Beall family freed him in 1796, when he was 60.
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 — the only property in the United States “known to have been owned and occupied by a slave brought from Africa,” according to Johnston.
In time, Yarrow’s house was replaced by another that, in turn, was demolished a few years ago. Last year, when a developer signaled interest in building on the property, the District’s archaeologist, Ruth Trocolli, oversaw a team of volunteer scholars and diggers who painstakingly excavated and sifted the soil in search of artifacts tied to Yarrow. Some thought there was a chance they might even find his grave.
Mia Carey, a doctoral candidate at the University of Florida in Gainesville, the field director on the project, says that the team uncovered 17,000 artifacts (including bits and pieces) covering 200 years of history. The material is still being analyzed. Several ceramic pieces date to Yarrow’s era, though further work is needed to determine if they were his. His grave was not found.
For Carey, Yarrow’s story stands for an aspect of slavery that is not well known: As many as a third of the Africans brought in chains to these 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.”
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. They named the collective after an alternative spelling of Yarrow.
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.
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.
Both Peale and Simpson may have been inspired to paint Yarrow under the mistaken belief of some at the time that Yarrow was well over 100 years old and held the secret to longevity. He did not drink alcohol or eat pork — following Islamic tenets — and for exercise he swam in the Potomac River.
“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 died in 1823, at about the age of 87. The 220th anniversary of his freedom from slavery is Aug. 22.