“Old Georgetown had a curfew against blacks being on the streets at night, but the curfew was lifted on Christmas Eve to permit African Americans to go around caroling at the houses of the wealthy.”
— James H. Johnston,
Yarrow Mamout, a former slave, entrepreneur and Georgetown property owner, is the “man who never was” in a city in full-throated celebration of Black History Month. Today, nearly 200 years after his death, Mamout looms large as one of the best, mostly unknown stories in our nation’s capital.
Mamout’s biographer, James H. Johnston, laid it out in his book and in testimony last month before the Old Georgetown Board, a little-known three-member panel appointed by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts to review proposed renovations and construction of Georgetown properties.
Time was, as Johnston reports, the Georgetown area was more than 30 percent black. A slave market was located on P Street. Nearly 1,500 slaves and more than 200 free blacks lived in Georgetown, according to the 1800 census. The number of blacks in Georgetown grew from there, but in the 1950s a combination of adverse public policies and gentrification would drive most of them to the other side of Rock Creek.
Johnston’s appearance before the Old Georgetown Board on Jan. 7 was prompted by an application submitted by a developer to construct townhouses at 3324 Dent Pl. NW, property once owned and occupied by Mamout.
Mamout’s story, if not his property, is worth preserving. His likeness already is. His portrait, rendered by James Alexander Simpson, is on display in the Peabody Room of the Georgetown Library. Artist Charles Willson Peale, painter of the Founding Fathers, also captured Mamout in an 1819 portrait.
However, it’s what Mamout did with his life that makes him remarkable.
He was unusual from the beginning. Enslaved at 16 and brought to Annapolis from Guinea in 1752, Mamout, a Muslim, could read and write in Arabic and write his name in English.
He was kept in slavery by Samuel Beall, who owned a plantation in Takoma Park, and later Beall’s son, Brooke, who lived in Georgetown. Mamout gained his freedom, after 44 years as a slave, when he was 60. But he never left Georgetown.
Johnston describes Mamout as a brick maker who earned top dollar for his work and “a jack of all trades” who made money making charcoal, loading ships and weaving baskets. He earned enough not only to acquire the Dent Place property but also to become a financier who lent money to merchants. He owned stock in the Columbia Bank of Georgetown.
It’s doubtful, however, that Mamout attended stockholder meetings. As Johnston observed, “The tavern where the bank held stockholder meetings also served as a site for slave sales.”
The Dent Place lot is what brings us to this day. Mamout’s home, described as a “log house,” is gone. It was replaced after the Civil War by a wood-frame structure, Johnston said, which was demolished in 2013 after being crushed by a tree.
But the property is still there: D.C. land once owned and occupied by a slave brought from Africa.
Not much is known about Mamout’s occupancy of 3324 Dent Pl. because its history is buried — where, to this day, it may remain undisturbed. So, too, Mamout’s body, which reportedly was laid to rest in the corner where he went to pray, facing Mecca. Johnston speculates that Mamout’s final remains may still be there under the earth.
Could it be that 3324 Dent Pl. contains artifacts, architecture and a body, as Johnston suggests? Could this plot contain a one-of-a-kind piece of America’s racial history?
If so, doesn’t that warrant recovery and preservation, as recommended by Johnston and some members of the historically black Mount Zion Methodist Church in Georgetown?
According to Thomas Luebke, secretary of the Commission of Fine Arts, the Old Georgetown Board reviewed an application for construction on Mamout’s property last week but took no action pending a decision by the city to participate in an archaeology dig at the site. On Feb. 2, the D.C. Historic Preservation Office advised the commission that the Dent property “has archaeology potential, including a potential for human remains.”
The Historic Preservation Office said that it received permission from the property owner to conduct an archaeological survey but that the work has to “be pro bono,” without needed mechanical equipment. The office said that it could partner with archaeologists, students and volunteers but that it would have to ask the developer for “some material support” to acquire tools to do “remote sensing, or other high-tech studies.”
Meanwhile, Yarrow Mamout’s remarkable story remains out of sight, and perhaps under the ground, as Black History Month is celebrated downtown.
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