This morning the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the portrait of Yarrow Mamout has been sold by the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Originally brought to Maryland on the slave ship Elijah, Yarrow gained his freedom forty-four years later. By then, Yarrow had been so well known in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., he attracted the attention of Charles Willson Peale. The portrait was painted by Peale in 1819 and is the earliest known portrait of a practicing American Muslim.
Peale’s striking portrait captured the imagination of James H. Johnston, an attorney and journalist in the greater Washington, D.C. area. Johnston went on to research Yarrow and his descendants, finding that his relatives were notable in their own right. Yarrow’s son married into the Turner family, and the farm community in western Maryland called Yarrowsburg was named for Yarrow Mahmout’s daughter-in-law Mary “Polly” Turner Yarrow. The Turner line ultimately produced Robert Turner Ford, who graduated from Harvard University in 1927. Their fascinating stories are told in Johnston’s forthcoming book, From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamout and the History of an African American Family.
The portrait was painted by Peale in 1819 and is the earliest known portrait of a practicing American Muslim.
Besides reconstructing the true story of an African American family in Maryland over six generations, Johnston puts a face on slavery and paints the history of race in America. Still fascinating Americans today, the portrait of Yarrow Mahmout is not just an historical artifact, but a journey that continues.
For more on Yarrow Mahmout’s journey, look for From Slave Ship to Harvard by James H. Johnston / 9780823239504 / $29.95 / MAY 2012