James Alexander Simpson, “Yarrow Mamout” (1822), oil on canvas, lent by Peabody Room, Georgetown Branch, District of Columbia Library (all images courtesy the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery)

A portrait on loan to the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG) will probably challenge many people’s understanding of early American history, particularly in regards to the presence of Muslims during that formative period. The small 1822 canvas, painted by James Alexander Simpson, is one of two known portraits of Yarrow Mamout, and his story is pretty amazing.

Born in 1736, Mamout hailed from one of the nomadic West African groups that spoke Fulani. Like many Africans during that time, he was forced into servitude and delivered to the shores of the Americas from his native Guinea through a network of slave traders.

By 1753, Mamout was serving the Beall family, first at their Maryland plantation and then at their home in Georgetown. According to a brochure from the National Portrait Gallery, Mamout gained “his freedom after 44 years, [and] remained in Georgetown—living among the approximately four hundred freed slaves there—working at many different tasks: making brick and charcoal, loading ships, weaving baskets.”

Twenty years later, Mamout was featured in Irish-American diplomat David Warden’s 1816 book A Chronological and Statistical Description of the District of Columbia, which tells us the following about Mamout:

When young, he was the best swimmer ever seen on the Potomac; and though his muscles are now somewhat stiffened by age, he still finds pleasure in his exercise. Fond of conversation, he often, in broken language, thus relates the story of his life, which we insert as a specimen of curious dialect:—

“Olda massa been tink he got all de work out of  Yaro bone. He tell a Yaro, go free Yaro; you been work nuff for me, go work for you now. Tankee, massa, Yaro say. Sure nuff, Yaro go to work for he now. Yaro work a soon—a late—a hot—a cold. Sometime he sweat—sometime he blow a finger. He get a fippenny bit—eighteen-pennee—gib him to massa to put by—put by a dollar, till come a heap. Oh! poor massa take sick, die—Yaro money gone. Oh, Yaro, go to work again. Get more dollars—work hard—more dollars. Gib him now to young massa, he young, he no die. Oh, young massa den broke—den go away. Oh, oh, oh! Yaro old for true now. Must work again—worky, worky, get more dollar. Gib him this time to all de massa—all de massa cant die, cant go away. Oh, Yaro—dollar breed now—every spring—every fall, Yaro get dollar—chichen now.”

The passage turned the freed African into a minor celebrity, while sharing the story of his financial hardship. After Mamout was freed, he worked to save $100. He deposited his savings with a white merchant for safekeeping, but after the man’s death, the money was lost. Mamout tried again, and after he was able to earn another $100, he deposited it with another merchant; again, his hopes were dashed as the money was lost when the man filed for bankruptcy. Finally, Mamout tried a third time, saving $200. Thankfully, he was convinced by a friend to invest his fortune, and he proceeded to purchase bank shares in his own name. His smart investment worked, and he was able to buy his own log home (now demolished), where he had a garden that he would pray in, turning toward Mecca. While Mamout spoke English poorly, he did speak and read Arabic, and he was remembered as a devout Muslim.

The portrait hanging at the NPG (image courtesy NPG)

The painting at the NPG is on loan from the Georgetown Branch of the District of Columbia’s Public Library system. It was painted by James Alexander Simpson, Georgetown University’s first art instructor, after he heard that Mamout may have been a centenarian (we now know he wasn’t quite there yet). For the same reason, the more famous American artist Charles Willson Peale — best known for his portraits of George Washington — also painted Mamout in a portrait that’s now part of the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

According to NPG Associate Curator Asma Naeem, the Simpson painting represents an important, if overlooked part of US history. “To me, the story of Yarrow in this heartwarming portrait tells so many things. It helps us deal with the trauma of slavery and all those who were brought here in shackles,” she told Hyperallergic. “It shows on an individual scale how Muslims have always been part of our social fabric. It offers the promise of being treated with respect and dignity at a time when many feel vulnerable. And it offers the promise of the American dream — how, even in difficult times, we have always strived for liberty and justice for all.”

Of course, Mamout did not have the same legal standing as other Americans during his life. Not being white meant he was not allowed to vote and was robbed of any of the rights of US citizenship — though even if black men had been allowed to vote, Mamout would still have faced difficulties, as Muslims were routinely denied entry to the US and citizenship until the second half of the 20th century. His incredible story testifies to the contradictory attitudes toward slavery, Africans, and Islam in the early years of the American Republic, as well as the fact that Muslims have been part of the American story since day one.

For those interested in learning more, James H. Johnston wrote a comprehensive history of Mamout and his family in From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamout and the History of an African American Family.

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.