From Slave Ship to Harvard

From Slave Ship to Harvard
Yarrow Mamout and the History of an African American Family
James H. Johnston
ISBN: 9780823239504
Book (Hardcover)
Fordham University Press
6 x 9
288 pages
25 black and white illustrations
May 2012

". . . Portray[s] an illuminating, thought-provoking, relatively unusual moment in early American history."—Publishers Weekly

"James H. Johnston has given us a clear and vivid look at a long-neglected aspect of American history. This book is in turn disturbing and elevating, horrifying and inspiring. It is impossible to ignore."—Harold Holzer, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

"Enslaved Africans and free blacks exhibited enormous self-agency in colonial America. James H. Johnston has captured this through the life of Yarrow Mamout and his descendants. This exceptional man was a Muslim and a slave for forty- four years, who earned enough money, to buy a house in 1800 in Georgetown, then as now a very rich place. Mamout’s story is of Islam, in early America, of slavery in Washington, D.C the nation’s capital and of the role free Blacks played to free their sisters and brothers."—Maurice Jackson, author of Let This Voice be Heard: Anthony Benezet, Father of Atlantic Abolitionism

"An absorbing study and story of a slave in America. Once begun, this book is very hard to put down. It weaves a prodigious amount of research into a compelling narrative, of not just one man's journey, but also of the struggle of every man and woman to achieve identity and success against often overwhelming odds. This is a book that no book club and no course on slavery in America should be without."—Edward Papenfuse, Director of the Maryland State Archives

“…a masterfully researched detective story with a wealth of detail about the rise of an African-American family.”—John R. Wennersten, University of Maryland, Eastern Shore

From Slave Ship to Harvard is the true story of an African American family in Maryland over six generations. The author has reconstructed a unique narrative of black struggle and achievement from paintings, photographs, books, diaries, court records, legal documents, and oral histories. From Slave Ship to Harvard traces the family from the colonial period and the American Revolution through the Civil War to Harvard and finally today.

Yarrow Mamout, the first of the family in America, was an educated Muslim from Guinea. He was brought to Maryland on the slave ship Elijah and gained his freedom forty-four years later. By then, Yarrow had become so well known in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., that he attracted the attention of the eminent American portrait painter Charles Willson Peale, who captured Yarrow’s visage in the painting that appears on the cover of this book. The author here reveals that Yarrow’s immediate relatives—his sister, niece, wife, and son—were notable in their own right. His son married into the neighboring Turner family, and the farm community in western Maryland called Yarrowsburg was named for Yarrow Mamout’s daughter-in-law, Mary “Polly” Turner Yarrow. The Turner line ultimately produced Robert Turner Ford, who graduated from Harvard University in 1927.

Just as Peale painted the portrait of Yarrow, James H. Johnston’s new book puts a face on slavery and paints the history of race in Maryland. It is a different picture from what most of us imagine. Relationships between blacks and whites were far more complex, and the races more dependent on each other. Fortunately, as this one family’s experience shows, individuals of both races repeatedly stepped forward to lessen divisions and to move America toward the diverse society of today.

James H. Johnston, an attorney and journalist, has published extensively on national affairs, law, telecommunications, history, and the arts. His contributions include papers on local Washington, D.C., history, Yarrow Mamout, and an edition of The Recollections of Margaret Cabell Brown Loughborough.

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