Andreas Jeninga/The Hoya Yarrow Mamout’s portrait sits in the Peabody Room of Georgetown Public Library.
Yarrow Mamout wants to tell you his story.
He waits for you in the George Peabody Room at the Georgetown Public Library on R Street. And he doesn’t get too many visitors.
Bypassing his wrinkly clothing, upswing hat and pipe, you look at his face. Stray white whiskers stretch out from the side of his face and chin. His lips are sealed. All you hear is silence.
It’s his eyes that beckon – like his story they are dark and almost concealed by the tired circles of time. They tell you that since you are endowed with two eyes not to see more but to see depth, to dig deep.
Unlike other eminent black Georgetown residents, such as scientist Benjamin Banneker and mathematician Thomas Fuller, the story of this once-famous former slave goes virtually untold. Today at the culmination of the Georgetown African Society’s Africa Week and national Black History Month, Mamout’s life provides a compelling tale that starts at the coast of West Africa and ends with him clad in red, white and blue in the historic Peabody Room. And to know about him means you have to dig real deep.
Mamout has been waiting in a 19.5 by 23.5 oil-on-canvas on top of a bookcase that houses an original Francis Scott Key autograph and a black lace fan of Queen Elizabeth. He’s surrounded by portraits of prominent white personalities of yesteryear’s Georgetown community. It was in 1822 that James Alexander Simpson, a professor of drawing and painting at then-Georgetown College, captured Mamout in this painting.
Simpson left no written record about his subject. And the library has no idea how the portrait was acquired and from whom.
But Jerry A. McCoy, Peabody Room librarian, archivist and curator, says it’s “the crown jewel” amid his artifacts depicting Georgetown life in the last two centuries.
Clues about Mamout’s life are mostly derived from another striking portrait – testament to his fame – by renowned painter Charles Willson Peale. Peale’s written account of his meeting with Mamout in 1819 along with other scattered sources have helped piece together the Mamout narrative.
Mamout was brought to the United States by way of the African slave trade. Some sources say Guinea was his homeland. Because he may have used a lunar calendar to count his age, he told Peale that he was 134 years old when they met in 1819, which meant he would have likely arrived at the Annapolis, Md., slave port at age 35.
Peale conferred with the widow of Mamout’s owner, known only as “Mr. Bell,” who said that a Captain Dow brought amout from Africa when he was about 14 years old. By all accounts, he made it to American soil before the Revolutionary War.
The widow remembered Mamout as always “an industrious hard working man” who had loyally served them for years at their plantation on the banks of the Potomac. According to David Warden, who wrote “A Chorographical and Statistical Description of the District of Columbia” in 1816 – a document in the Peabody collection – the young Mamout was “the best swimmer ever seen on the Potomac.”
When Bell decided to build a spacious house in Georgetown, he told Mamout that if he diligently made all the bricks he would be granted his freedom. After arduous work, Mamout made all the bricks. But his owner died before construction of the house began. In spite of this, Bell’s widow, “knowing the design of her husband,” decided to honor her husband’s word.
A District deed from May 1, 1807, recorded his hard-earned sovereignty: “Upton Beall of Montgomery County releases and sets free from my service Negro Yarrow.”
The widow told Peale that Mamout “made a great many bows thanking” her, even offering future service if need be. She never did call him.
At the turn of the 19th century, blacks made up about 24 percent of Washington, D.C.’s population, with most of them being slaves. Mamout would have been among the 6 percent of blacks who were free.
In Warden’s 1816 District report, he wrote “most of the slaves of Washington are well-clad and nourished. They are usually very civil,” though they had a fetish for “spirituous liquors.” The daily expense for a master to maintain a single slave was 27 cents, whereas a white laborer doing similar work earned 75 cents a day because he was “more industrious,” according to Warden.
Then from 1820 to 1830 the free population of greater Georgetown in particular, grew from 894 to 1,204, with the area’s total number (of both races) reaching 8,441.
In 1838 the Jesuits of Georgetown University sold their 272 slaves for $115,000 to an estate in Louisiana, after sustained pressure from the likes of Pope Pius VII, according to a Feb. 2, 2002, HOYA article.
Mamout’s determination shined amid his struggles. Working various roles, he managed to save $100, which he “considered a fortune” according to Warden. He entrusted the money to a merchant, who later died, and with no written claim he lost it all.
Again, he toiled. By day he labored for fixed wages, and by night he weaved nets and baskets to sell.
Again, he saved $100 within a few years.
Again, he entrusted the money to a Georgetown merchant, who later went bankrupt.
Again, he lost all that he accrued. He was steadfast.
Working different jobs and selling goods from a cart, he amassed another fortune, this time of $200. A friend described the banking system, and he signed on as one of the first shareholders of the Columbia Bank. Finally, his money and status were secure.
Peale wrote that Mamout owned “a House and lot.” Today the National Park Service’s tour of black Georgetown has his house location listed as site No. 9, along the block 3330-3332 of Dent Place. If you ignore the pale green Jaguar parked outside today, it is possible to imagine his humble home, though the original structure has since been demolished.
But besides his material struggles, Mamout’s legacy is rooted in his enduring spirit. A neighborhood personality, Peale says he was “known by most of the Inhabitants of Georgetown and particularly by the Boys who are often teasing him which he takes in good humor.” His “cheerful conduct” added charm to the community.
Also well-known was his commitment to his faith. Mamout was a uslim. He was often seen and heard “in the streets singing praises of God,” Peale observed. Unlike most slaves, he was somehow able to retain his name. His last name is likely a West African derivative of Mahmoud or Muhammad. Friends teased Mamout about not drinking whiskey or eating pork, indicating he observed religious tenets.
But his faith sustained his soul in a land where he forcibly found himself but later called home. “Man is no good unless his religion come from the heart,” Mamout told Peale.
Historians estimate that anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of Africans brought to the Americas were sub-Saharan Muslims.
Mamout’s celebrity and age intrigued Peale, one of the country’s most gifted portraitists. Mamout sat for a day and a half while Peale painted his likeness. Afterward, Simpson sought out Mamout for his rendition. Simpson, who taught at then-Georgetown College from 1830 to 1865, is known for his depictions of the university’s early landscape. Lauinger Library Special Collections has about a dozen of his original paintings.
Most critics believe that based on Simpson’s work, he was probably a self-taught artist. If the date of his “Old Yarrow” is accurate, then he would have been 17 years old when he completed the painting. There is marked difference in the portrayals. Peale’s refined oil-on-canvas is now at the Atwater Kent Museum of Philadelphia, and the image most people come into contact with. Simpson’s has been on exhibit at the Smithsonian.
Even in old age, Mamout was resilient. He “walks erect, is active, cheerful and good-natured,” Warden wrote, and still found “pleasure in this (swimming) exercise.”
Despite fame and virtues, Mamout could not escape his skin. Allan D. Austin, a professor at Springfield College and chronicler of African American history, writes that Mamout “often pretended to be a small thief befitting their (white gentlemen) assumptions of the nature of his race to avoid, perhaps, calling attention to his more self-respecting and self-supporting activities as a property owner.”
Additionally, being black meant unlikelihood of legacy preservation. Mamout’s exact death date is unknown, as is his burial site. McCoy believes there must be descendents, but there is no way of telling. “The sad thing about history is that unless you’re interested, it is a complete non-entity,” cCoy said.
Literate white property owners were not so interested in cataloguing individual black history at the time. That is perhaps why the rich history of Georgetown’s once-sprawling black community has been recounted in a book and documentary entitled, Black Georgetown Remembered.
Back in the Peabody Room you gently leaf through an original two-centuries-old Maryland Green’s Gazette newspaper, touching the soft cotton-rag paper.
On page two there’s a congressional declaration dated July 4, 1776, that reads, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal,” signed by a John Hancock.
Then on page four there’s a classified ad from a James Smith who has a reward of $6 for anyone who finds, “A negro called PHIL, about 20 years of age: had on when he went away, an iron collar about his neck and no clothing but a coarse country linen shirt and a pair of country breechers.”
After digging deep in your perplexity you look up – and with two eyes you see Mamout, waiting to break his silence.
Editor’s Note: The National Park Service tours of Black Georgetown are held the third Sunday of every month, visit www.nps.gov/rocr/olst/black.htm for details. And for information about the Peabody Room and the “Old Yarrow” portrait visit www.dclibrary.org/branches/geo/peabody.html.
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