Editor’s Note: We’re back to regular posting after an unexpected hiatus. Thanks to our newest poster, author James Johnston, for getting us started. His piece includes some information from his recent book, From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamout and the History of an African American Family.
–by James Johnston
A Christmas Eve tradition in Georgetown in the early 1800s was for African Americans to stroll through the streets and sing carols at the homes of wealthy white residents. The next morning, the leader of this band made the rounds again, firing off a shotgun to solicit donations for the effort. Though it must have been a touching sight, it was unusual in two respects. First, it was illegal in those days for African Americans to congregate after dark (one third of the population of Georgetown in 1800 was black of whom 16% were free), but everyone seemed to understand Christmas Eve was an exception. Second, the leader of the band, a man named Yarrow Mamout, was a devout Muslim.
As this example suggests, race relations in the new capital of Washington D. C. were more complex than commonly believed. Yarrow (his last name) was another example of the complexity. He was a Fulani from Guinea and had been brought to America in 1752 at age sixteen on one of those terrible slave ships. He had been educated in Africa and could speak at least three languages. He was literate in Arabic and could write his name in English. He valued education so much that he arranged for his son to be taught to read and write at a time when teaching blacks to read was generally discouraged.
Yarrow was enslaved for forty-four years as a body servant before being freed. Three years later, he bought a house in Georgetown. As a freeman, he became a jack of all trades, loading boats at the wharf during the day and at night making baskets for sale. He also could turn wood into charcoal and had no equal as a brick maker, commanding wages that were one and a half times more than white laborers. Athletic, he was said to be the best swimmer ever seen in the Potomac River at Georgetown. He saved his earnings and became a financier, loaning money to merchants and even buying stock in the Columbia Bank of Georgetown. Of course the tavern where the bank held stockholder meetings also served as a site for slave sales.
Adding to the complexity of race relations, in Georgetown, Yarrow rubbed shoulders with the family of the slavers who had brought him from Africa, but then everyone did. Christopher Lowndes and Benjamin Tasker, Jr. had arranged that slaving voyage back in 1752. They were brothers-in-law. Lowndes had married Tasker’s sister. Tasker’s father was governor of colonial Maryland. Others in the Lowndes family were also in the transatlantic slave trade. In fact, they were responsible for transporting an estimated 9,600 slaves to the Americas over a period of forty years. Lowndes’s daughter married Benjamin Stoddert, who was an aide to George Washington during the Revolution and later the first Secretary of the Navy. Lowndes’s son, Francis, followed in his father’s footsteps in the slave trade and even captained three slave ships. He used the profits to buy a house in Georgetown that he later sold to Robert Peter and his wife Martha Custis, granddaughter of Martha Custis Washington.
In 1818, the famous American portrait painter Charles Willson Peale came to the capital for the purpose of painting a portrait of President James Monroe and other political and military leaders. Congressman Henry Clay of Kentucky sat for Peale but Congressman William Lowndes of South Carolina, a distant relative of Christopher, turned Peale down. Hearing that Yarrow might be 143 years old and that he owned a house and lot and bank stock, Peale contacted him and in January 1819 painted a stunning portrait of him, portraying the African as a wealthy Georgetown burgher. Whether intended so or not, it stands as a dramatic and enduring statement of racial equality. Yarrow’s belief in education also endured. In 1923, a relative of his daughter-in-law, a man named Robert Turner Ford, entered Harvard University and graduated four years later.