In the account below, attorney and historian James H. Johnston describessix generations of descendants of Yarrow Mamout, a Muslim slave made famous by Charles Willson Peales 1819 painting of him in Georgetown in the District of Columbia. Johnstons discussion of the evolution of hisbook, From Slave Ship to Harvard describes Mamout and his descendants.
From Slave Ship to Harvard is an extraordinary story about six generations of an African American family in Maryland. Yarrow Mamout was the first. The early American portrait painter Charles Willson Peale heard of him while visiting Georgetown and painted his portrait in 1819. Although the painting is famous as one of Peale’s best and of an ex-slave to boot, no one seemed to notice what Peale said in his diary about Yarrow (his last name): He was Muslim and had come to America on a slave ship from Africa. We know few names of the nine million individuals who were carried to the Americas on those slave ships, and yet with Yarrow, we have not only a name but also a face. Portraits of slave ship survivors are exceedingly rare. Only a handful of men and women rose above the terrible slave ship experience and had their portraits painted by major artists, as Yarrow did. Equally compelling is the fact that in 1927 almost 175 years to the day that Yarrow stepped off the slave ship (1752), a descendant of his daughter-in-law’s family, a man named Robert Turner Ford, graduated from Harvard.
Research for the book started by a chance nine years ago. It happened this way. There is a second portrait of Yarrow in the Georgetown public library. It was by the local artist, James Alexander Simpson. I saw it and became curious as to who this man was. I wasn’t planning to write anything, certainly not a book. Because portraits of African Americans before the Civil War are so scarce, I expected to find volumes written about Yarrow and these two paintings. Instead, I found nothing more than passing references in books and articles on other subjects. The only original