I recall perusing my high school American History textbook my junior year, when a photo on the margin of a section on the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade caught my eye. There was no caption or description of the photo. The sheer dignity of an elderly black man with a pipe in hand, and what appeared to be Muslim headgear resonated with me. Who was he? Fast forward to college, and a fortuitous visit to the Georgetown Public Library’s Peabody Room where I saw another painting that appeared to be this same man. The painting was dated 1822. Then, in 2006 I glossed over the Sunday edition of the Washington Post and came across James H. Johnston’s piece, "The Man in the Knit Cap." The personal reflections and thoroughness of the article filled in gaps of my own personal research that had haunted me for eight years.
One out of the estimated 9.4 million people brought to America via the slave trade, Mahmoud (or Muhammad) Yaro (1736-1823), also known as Yarrow Mamout, was one of only two African Americans of his time to serve as subjects of formal portraits. At the age of 14, Yaro arrived with his sister to the shores of Maryland in 1752. He was a practicing Muslim, educated in West Africa to read and write in Arabic. Originally hailing from Guinea, Yaro was renowned for his noble, cheerful character. After forty-five years as a slave, Yaro regained his freedom and purchased a property in the now swanky Georgetown neighborhood of Washington DC in 1800.
Mahmoud gained notoriety and piqued the interest of the famous American painter, Charles Willson Peale. Peale had fought in the Revolutionary War under the command of George Washington and later was celebrated for his portraits of Washington and other Founding Fathers. Peale's interest was based upon the rumor that Yaro was well over 100 years old. Peale also recorded their conversation in a diary, and probably wrote his obituary. In 1819 Peale painted Yaro on a visit to Washington where he also painted President James Monroe and other notables. The painting is currently housed at the Atwater Kent Museum in Philadelphia. The Peabody Room painting in Georgetown was by the local artist James Alexander Simpson three years after Peale's portrait of Yaro.
Left: Portrait by Charles Wilson Peale. Right: Portrait by James Alexander Simpson
I believe in providence. From the paintings and scant record, we are introduced to someone of profound significance for the future practice and presence of Islam in America. Mahmoud Yaro’s life and character should inspire the roots of our collective community, reflecting the complexity of the struggles and triumphs of Muslims living in America, and bridging the immigrant and indigenous local identities. Some virtues based upon the earliest account of his life (c.1811) provide each of us with an example of grace amidst difficult circumstances.
Overcoming Adversity Takes Work
Yaro was a master Mason, and upon completion of a large project amassed a hundred dollars. He had "toiled late and early, and in the course of a few years he had amassed a hundred dollars" on which to retire. He gave it to a merchant for safekeeping, but the entire sum was lost when the merchant died insolvent. He worried because he was no longer young and strong. Still, he went back to work, laboring for fixed wages by day, and weaving nets and baskets to sell by night. When he had saved another $100, he gave the money to a different merchant—with the same result. Yarrow lost his savings a second time when the merchant went bankrupt. Then, "by the advice of a friend, who explained to him the nature of a bank, he purchased shares to this amount in that of Columbia [Bank of Georgetown], in his own name, the interest of which now affords him a comfortable support.”
Living an Active Lifestyle
“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.” Even when he was more than eighty years old, Yaro was described as someone who“walks erect, [and] is active.”
Emanating Joy & Cheer
Yaro was described as “cheerful and good-natured." In his diary, Peale said: “Yarrow owns a house and lot and is known by most of the inhabitants of Georgetown, particularly by the boys who are often teasing him, which he takes in good humor. It appears to me that the good temper of the man has contributed considerably to longevity. Yarrow has been noted for sobriety and a cheerful conduct.”
A Walking Dhikr
“He [Yaro] professes to be a mahometan, and is often seen and heard in the streets singing Praises to God—and conversing with him he said, “man is no good unless his religion comes from the heart."
Legacy of Prayer
Yaro was about 83 when Peale painted him, and died four years later on January 19, 1823. The last documented mention of Yaro is his obituary in the Gettysburg Compiler of February 12, 1823. The obituary's wording is likely derived from Peale's diary entry, and Peale possibly himself wrote it:
"Died—at Georgetown, on the 19th ultimo, negro Yarrow, aged (according to his account) 136 years. He was interred in the corner of his garden, the spot where he usually resorted to pray. . .it is known to all that knew him, that he was industrious, honest, and moral— in the early part of his life he met with several losses by loaning money, which he never got, but he persevered in industry and economy, and accumulated some bank stock and a house and lot, on which he lived comfortably in his old age—Yarrow was never known to eat of swine, nor drink ardent spirits."
Left: Residence which stands on the property owned by Mahmood Yaro. Right: Cellar at 3324 Dent Place NW. Yaro likely made these bricks, which date to the early 1800s. (Source: James Johnston)
A tacit understanding of our rich histories and cultures propels us forward, as future generations redefine their faith for their time. Yaro, at once immigrant and indigenous, is an emblem of ethical virtues and religious conviction we are in dire need of. May Allah grant him the highest of Paradise, in proximity to the Beloved Messenger of Allah ﷺ, and as the foremost of the foremost. May Allah protect those of the Ummah of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) who struggled, lived, and transmitted to future generations this inspired faith, and may He inspire us with the example of our predecessor Mahmoud Yaro, may Allah sanctify his secret, to be sincere and determined followers, to seek the best and most beneficial of knowledge, and to spread faith in the best, most beneficial, and most beautiful of ways through our actions.
James H. Johnston, “The Man in the Knit Cap,” Washington Post, February 5, 2006.
James H. Johnston, From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamout and the History of an African American Family (Fordham University Press, 2012).