Tracing Early African Muslims in America:
Some Barely Tapped and Possible Sources:
Let the Search Go On
The study of Islam in early America is still young. When Roots appeared in 1977 there were complaints that its hero Kunta Kinte was a Muslim. The novelist James A. Michener implied that the author Alex Haley had reflected an interest in Malcolm X rather than "true history." Before then, a few texts, but only a few, were available to counter Michener’s error. There were articles by Morroe Berger (1964) and Clyde Ahmad Winters (1976); books by Philip D. Curtin and others: Africa Remembered: Narratives by West Africans from the Era of the Slave Trade (five narrators were African Muslims, their African information was emphasized--1967); by Douglas Grant: The Fortunate Slave (a story of Job Ben Solomon whose journey from the Gambia to Annapolis, Maryland paralleled that of Haley’s Kunta Kinte--1968). In the same year as Roots appeared, Terry Alford told the story of Abd ur-Rahman, Prince Among Slaves. Also in that same year, 1977, Toni Morrison introduced a song that named "Balaly," "Medina," "Omar," "Ryna," "Muhammet," and "Solomon," which lends a Muslim spin to her novel Song of Solomon. Presumably she borrowed these names from WPA interviews of ex-slaves descended from Muslims in Georgia found in Drums and Shadows (1940).
Before 1984, references to African Muslims in the New World were scattered in old newspapers, magazines, and in sections of a few books. Often African Muslims (Abd ur-Rahman, Bilali, and Umar ibn Said) were called Arabs or Moors -- especially if they showed they were literate. A few individuals had been noticed (Job, Abd ur-Rahman, Umar ibn Said), but they had not been related to one another. The most comprehensive recognition of such individuals and comparisons to one another to date is my own African Muslims in Antebellum America: A Sourcebook (New York: Garland, 1984). It introduces, reprints and annotates published and unpublished scattered bits and pieces of the stories of eleven men about whom a fair amount of information has been found (and about five others who were taken to Jamaica), and similarly treats shorter notices -- from a reference or sentence to a page -- of thirty more who arrived on these shores from Africa between 1730 and 1862.
Since then an African Muslim has appeared in Julie Dash’s movie "Daughters of the Dust." The historical Bilali has been noticed by Charles Joyner, Remember Me: Slave Life in Coastal Georgia (1989), by William S. McFeeley, Sapelo’s People (1994), and by B.G. Martin, "Sapelo Island’s Arabic Document: The ‘Bilali Diary’ in Context," Georgia Historical Quarterly, LXXVIII, Fall 1994, 589-601. Michael A. Gomez has written more generally about him and others in "Muslims in Early America," Journal of Southern History LX (Nov. 1994) 671-710, as have Thomas Parramore, Sulaiman Nyang, Renay Jihad and Muhammad Abdullah Al-Ahari in shorter articles. A Fayetteville, North Carolina masjid has been named after Umar ibn Said.
Gomez has extended a field barely approached in my book because he has begun exploring plantation records and collections of fugitive slave notices for Muslim names and references to Muslim practices. Such efforts will undoubtedly lead to the discovery of many more African Muslims in Antebellum America. Court records and lists of wills, similar potential sources, ought to be investigated. Southerner William Brown Hodgson of Savannah, sojourner in North Africa in the 1820’s and linguist, often wrote about African Muslims. His papers ought to be fully explored (some are in the Savannah Historical Society). References to the Moors of Charleston, the Wahabi families of the Carolinas, and any histories, memoirs, autobiographies, and biographies of Southerners, ought to be scanned for references to Muslims to go beyond what has been found so far.
Finally, the erudite Ronald T. Judy has provided both insightful historical and linguistic conclusions and out-of-sight philosophical inquires into the writings of Job Ben Solomon, Bilali, Lamine Kaba, and Umar ibn Said in his (Dis)Forming the American Canon: African-Arabic Slave Narratives and the Vernacular (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota, 1993).
Although I had barely dipped into some of those above, by the time I had completed the editing of my African Muslims, I had come up with 123 pages of notes, consisting, usually, of naming sources. These sometimes came from unexpected, serendipitiously discovered papers, but more often, the great majority came from articles on a single Muslim that included references to others. These notes and the sources they point to have not been exhausted.
Since 1984 I have found further information on four African Muslims.
Each of the findings just above suggests that a lot more is still somewhere out there. If I had more undedicated time, I would try to find the whereabouts of the papers of other individuals mentioned below. I would look for mentions of and papers by African Muslims in order to further understand their presence and possible influence on the early United States. At this time, however, I am trying to complete a paperback version of African Muslims which must be finished soon.
1) Seven letters by Mahommah Baquaqua in the Amistad Collection, Tulane University, and from a correspondent, a note indicating Baquaqua had gotten as far as England on his way back to Africa. The papers of the American Free Baptist Society will undoubtedly have more on Baquaqua.
2) A carte de visite portrait, a short newspaper article, and a notice of Mohammed Ali ben Said and of his death in Tennessee in 1882 -- all from the Massachusetts Historical Society. Probably more can be found in the military records of this soldier in the Massachusetts 55th Colored Volunteer Regiment.
3) Some further notes by Theodore Dwight, Jr. on Lamen Kebe in gallery sheet form suggesting that in some journal of the 1860’s there is a more complete account than what we have so far.
4) The most exciting recent find: the original manuscript in Arabic of Umar ibn Said’s nearly unique autobiography with notes on it and originals and translations of several other manuscripts in Arabic from an enslaved Muslim in Panama, and some by Africans in Liberia — all to be auctioned off by Swann Galleries, New York City, in March 1996.
Here are some more directions for those seeking further in this project. Although Douglas Grant surely looked, as he composed his Fortunate Slave about Job -- who was very well received by British nobles and intelligentsia -- Grant did not find more than two of Job’s several writings in England or Africa. Somewhere, however, there must be a "version" of the Qur’an by Job Ben Solomon who wrote out three copies in England according to his 1734 biographer Thomas Bluett. In 1795 one copy was known to be in the hands of a William Smith, Member of Parliament, according to C.B. Wadstrohm: An Essay on Colonization (1795).
Abd ur-Rahman met dignitaries across the North who regularly recorded their meetings and who asked him to write in Arabic in 1828. Many are mentioned in Terry Alford’s Prince Among Slaves and in my A.M.A.A., but we both know there are other revealing papers yet to be found. Some possibilities: the papers of Henry Inman who drew his portrait; of Representative and popular orator Edward Everett, Jr.; of Ralph R. Gurley, secretary of the American Colonization Society; of Francis Scott Key, author of the "Star-Spangled Banner"; of Charles and Lewis Tappan, reformers and businessmen; of Thomas H. Gallaudet who founded schools for the hearing impaired; of George B. English, traveler in Turkish countries; of George Light, editor; of Rev. John F. Schroder who declared that Abd ur-Rahman wrote Arabic "with neatness and rapidity"; of Condy Raguet, mayor of Philadelphia -- all of whom met Abd ur-Rahman. The latter’s 1828 crayon portrait -- whereabouts unknown today -- was seen as late as 1867 in Hartford, Connecticut, by none other than Mark Twain -- whose response begins respectfully and ends callously racist.
There are allusive mentions of Bilali in several places by writers celebrating the Georgia Sea Islands America. Martin, McFeely, Al-Ahari, and Judy have added to the developing picture of this imam on Sapelo Island, Georgia, but something more directly descriptive from his contemporaries must appear one day. His friend, Salih Bilali on St. Simon’s island, was met by more people, but little more than what his master wrote in the 1930’s and what descendants recalled in the 1930’s has yet appeared. His descendants and island records need to be explored further.
Lamine Kebe, African school teacher, spent a great deal of time with one Theodore Dwight, Jr., author and editor of Dwight’s American Magazine. Dwight promised to publish what he learned but, so far, only two short essays have appeared. But a few new pages have been found as noted above. Another prominent acquaintance, Colonizationist Robert Breckenridge of Kentucky championed Kebe’s effort to finance a return to Africa in 1835. maybe he made notes about "his" African.
Until late in 1995, eleven manuscripts in Arabic by ‘Umar ibn Said had been discovered. Some of these included "The Lord’s Prayer," and the "23rd Psalm" from the Bible. Translations of at least parts of nine more appear in various sources from 1819 to the 1880’s -- each declaring that this manuscript showed Umar had converted to Christianity. Finally, late in 1995, at the Swann Galleries, his all-important "Autobiography" manuscript has been found. This last is the only extant manuscript asserting conversion. As it was written in 1831, and as his declaration made his life easier among local Christians, it needs to be kept in context. ‘Umar’s last minister expressed in 1854 some doubts about the completeness of ‘Umar’s conversion. ‘Umar’s latest manuscript, from 1857, understood by Carolinians to be the "Lord’s Prayer," is a reversion to Islam. ‘Umar wrote Surah 110 -- one of the last recorded by Mohammed.
It may be argued -- by Christians against Muslims and by Muslims against Christians — that the "Lord’s Prayer’, the 23rd Psalm, and Surah 110 are statements any religious "bookman" could live with. The available documents, beginning with traditional Muslim invocations, tend, it seems to me, to argue ‘Umar had not converted. More of his writings may yet be found to test this conclusion.
Several writers who may have kept papers said they had some of Umar’s writings: Judge John Louis Taylor of North Carolina, William Brown Hodgson, R.R. Gurley mentioned above, Presbyterian minister and teacher William S. Plumer, and Theodore Dwight, Jr. It is also possible that F.S. Key again, missionaries isaac Bird and Jonas King, Umar’s ministers W.D. Snodgrass, Gregory T. Bedell and Matthew B. Grier, also held some of his manuscripts. There are probably further statements from North Carolinians and visitors there about so signal a character.
According to the compilers of a book on Baptist churches and missions (Andrew T. Foss and E. Matthews, Facts for Baptist Churches, 1850), Mahommah G. Baquaqua, born Muslim but a serious backslider, was already known, apparently through articles in the church’s journals. These have yet to be gathered. Baquaqua attended a preparatory school connected to New York’s Central College -- where black professors taught in the 1850’s -- for about three years, so there must be more notices of him than the [auto]biography he himself published in Detroit in 1854 or the seven letters by Baquaqua, one of which includes three words in Arabic, mentioned above.
Finally, my book includes a chapter on Nicholas or Mohammed Ali ben Said who went from Bornu to Turkey to Russia to Detroit to the Massachusetts 55th Colored Volunteer Regiment in 1863. So far nothing has been found on him beyond those recent discoveries listed above, four mentions by fellow soldiers and his own autobiography -- published in the most prestigious journal of the day, the Atlantic Monthly, in 1867. Here again there must be more out there.
Go to it, young scholars.
Read on September 29, 1995 at DePaul University’s Islam in America Conference by Muhammed Abdullah Al-Ahari for Dr. Allan D. Austin of Springfield College (Mass.)
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