Notable Slaves Who Helped Build Our Country

Enough can not be said about the sacrifice slaves gave to our country.  Without all of the stolen labor, the United States of American would have never built the wealth that it did.  Historians and scholars debate the percentage of slaves who were Muslims, but most agree that somewhere between 10 to 30 percent of slaves who were brought to America were Muslims. The event of transporting Muslim slaves was made famous by the book by Alex Haley, Roots.

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Ayuba Suleiman (b. 1701 and d. 1773), also known as Job Solomon, was born in Senegal, was believed to have come from a prominent Muslim family. He was captured and sold as a slave, then shipped to Annapolis, Maryland. Ayuba was known to have known how to read and write Arabic, refuse wine when it was offered to him, and to have fled from his slave owners home when a child made fun of him when he prayed.  He was later purchased by a man named Oglethorpe.  In England, a man named Hans Sloane, who made him a translator, and Ayuba translated a number of Arabic documents for the British Museum.  He was given a high status when he was made a member of the Gentleman’s Society of Spalding. Unfortunately, he was captured as a slave again by the French just before he passed away. Ayuba’s memoirs were published by a friend of his, Rev. Thomas Bluett, who had helped him gain his freedom.

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Sambo Anderson, also referred to as Uncle Sambo or Samuel Anderson, was one of George Washington’s most coveted slaves.  Purchased around 1750, he was trained as a carpenter, and built and repaired several wooden structures at Mt. Vernon. George Washington was known to allow his slaves autonomy to keep their own religion and even gave Sambo permission to use his boat to go visit his family at a neighboring farm.  Other slaves, by the name of Fatima and Nila were also believed to have been slaves on Washington’s property as well, and may have been related to Sambo.  Washington gave his slaves their freedom upon his death in his will.  (I find it interesting that it is an Islamic tradition to free one’s slaves upon your death.)  As a free man, he hunted and sold wild game.  He was able to earn enough money to purchase the freedom of some of his family members, including his daughter, Charity, and several of his grand children.  When Uncle Sambo, when himself had passed away, an obituary was written about him in the Alexandria Gazette. 

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Yarrow Mamout was a promenant figure in Georgetown in the early 1800’s. Mamout worked as a bricklayer, but was also known to have made money making charcoal, weaving baskets, and loading ships. He was freed when he was 60 years old and believed to have owned his own home on Dent Place in Georgetown, where he believed to be buried. Mamout was known to have swam in the Potomac River for exercise, have never consumed alcohol or pork, and to have walked the streets of Georgetown singing praises of Allah. His portrait is on display at the Georgetown Library.

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Omar Ibn Said was known as a slave of General Owen in North Carolina.  He wrote 14 manuscripts in Arabic.  One of them was the biography of his life, which was written in communication with Sheikh Hunter. However, several others were inscriptions of Qur’anic text, which he had memorized before becoming a slave. Francis Scott Key was known to have given Ibn Said a bible in Arabic. His owners were also known to have given him a Qur’an in English to help him learn English.  Although many claim that he converted to Christianity, some others say he may have been a Mason, or have even continued to practice Islam afterwards. Today, his manuscripts are stored in the Wilson Library at University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

  1. What kinds of jobs did many slaves of early days of America have?
  2. Why was it a benefit to have been able to read and write if you were a slave?
  3. How is Omar Ibn Said similar to another prominent slave, Bilali Muhammad?
  4. Which of the slaves mentioned were known to have had family?
  5. What kinds of Islamic traditions did these slaves try to preserve?

 

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Muslims in the American Revolutionary War

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Picture: Two out of three British killed in the above pictures were credited to have been shot by freed slaves who changed their names to Muslim names while fighting in the Continental Army.

 

The first evidence of Muslims contributing to the success of the Continental Army in America’s revolutionary war was the friendship made between George Washington and Sidi Muhammad bin Abdullah who was the Sultan of Morocco.  Sidi Muhammad bin Abdullah offered George Washington the ports of Morocco as a place to dock American ships. This friendly relationship allowed for the Treaty of Marrakech of 1790 and gave America greater security in their independence from England.  The friendship also signifies George Washington’s attitude toward Muslims and his potential willingness to welcome them to help fight in his Continental Army that helped free the US from Britain.

Fighting on American soil, some of the Muslim names that appear in George Washington’s rosters include Benjamin Ishmael, Bampett Muhammad, who fought for the “Virgina Line,” and a man named Peter Buckminster who changed his name to Peter Salem and became a hero when he was able to kill British Major John Pitcairn at the Battle of Bunker Hill, and then later served as a commander at the Battles of Saratoga and Battle of Stoney Point.  In addition, a man named Salem Poor was originally slave to a man named John Poor. He purchased his freedom in 1769 for 27 pounds, and shortly after left to join the Continental Army. He is best known for his service at Bunker Hill, and was recognized for his bravery at the General court of Massachusettes in 1775. He was credited with killing British Lieutenant Colonel Abercrombie.  US Postal Stamps feature Salem Poor commemorating his accomplishments.  All three of these men were believed to have been slaves who were freed when they agreed to join the Continental Army of George Washington. They were reported to have changed their names to names that represented their Muslim heritage. However, there is no historical evidence besides their name change and the fact that they were freed slaves to prove that these soldiers were actually Muslims.

The greatest evidence of Muslims fighting in the Continental Army lies in the historical records regarding Yusuf Ben Ali or Joseph Benehaley.  Benehaley was reported fought with General Sumter, and his name appears on George Washington’s roster of soldiers as well.  Benehaley was considered a “free person of color” under the recently passed South Carolina Sundry Act of 1790. His name appears in the census of 1810, and his family’s home is reported in every census after that with possibly about 100 families After the revolution, he settled on Sumter’s South Carolina plantation, where it was believed he was given permission by Sumter to have settled his land. Joseph and his brother Scott Benehaley are reported in the book, Melungeons: Examining an Appalachian Legend as a Caucasion man of Arab descent who was originally a pirate, but who later became a scout for General Sumter. The US Journal of Sumter County, SC also reports the Benehaleys to have be Moors, who at that time were often referred to as, “Turks” because of their associations with Muslims and the Ottoman Empire. More evidence of the Benehaley’s family presence in Sumter South Carolina can be found in the geneology research of the Benehaley family reported on a website called South Carolina’s Information Highway (or sciway3). It is possible that this family remained Muslims until the early 1900’s when the Turk church, Long Branch Baptist church, was reported to have been established.

  1. What kinds of interactions did George Washington have with Muslims?
  2. What evidence is there that George Washington was tolerant of Muslims?
  3. Who are three people who are believed to have been Muslim soldiers in the American Revolutionary War?
  4. What was the significance of being a “free person of color” in 1790?
  5. Of the people with Muslim names in the Continental Army, which soldier was most likely to have been a practicing Muslim living in the US in the early 1800’s?