Author Q&A: James H. Johnston (Part 1)

  • July 12, 2012

The first of a two-part Q&A with the author of From Slave Ship to Harvard. The second part will appear Tuesday!

This is the first part of a two-part Q&A with James H. Johnston, the author of From Slave Ship to Harvard. The second part will appear on Tuesday, July 17.

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.

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, he 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.  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.

Basically, it was the descendent of Yarrow’s son’s wife’s sibling that went to Harvard; Yarrow is merely a juxtaposition in this story. Is there no African-American Harvard man whose roots can be unassailably traced all the way back to slavery?

Let me preface my responses by saying that this is an incredibly good set of questions.

On page 192, the book points out that Clement Garnett Morgan was born a slave in Virginia and graduated from Harvard in 1890. And obviously, most African Americans — as opposed to Africans — that attend Harvard are descendants of slaves. The thing that is different about Robert Turner Ford is that this family, unlike any other African-American family, can be traced back not just to the period of slavery, which after all ended only in 1865, the year before Harvard admitted its first black undergraduate, but to a slave ship, albeit through marriage. Alex Haley tried to trace his family back to a slave ship, but failed. So he turned his research into the novel Roots. To my knowledge, From Slave Ship to Harvard is the first research that’s been able to tell a continuous story for a single black family from slave ship to today, whether by marriage or by blood.  In a recent radio interview, Professor Skip Gates of Harvard said: “You can say I had a severe case of Roots envy. I wanted to be like Alex Haley, and I wanted to be able to … do my family tree back to the slave ship and then reverse the Middle Passage, as I like to put it, and find the tribe or ethnic group that I was from in Africa.” (from the radio show)]]

So the title of the book, From Slave Ship to Harvard, is, in my mind, an understatement. No one has been able to trace a modern African-American family back to a slave ship, much less discover that they went to Harvard. Finally, as I point out on page 197, Emma Turner Ford, who attended her son’s graduation from Harvard in 1927, knew Polly Yarrow, Yarrow Mamout’s daughter-in-law. I think that’s even more impressive than if I had established a remote, blood relationship.

How did this story come about? It seems to be the kind of story where you have no control simply because you don’t know what might be unearthed. You can only tell the story of the history you find. What were your original expectations? Did the story disappoint you in any way?

It is true: I had no control over the story and didn’t start with a preconceived notion of where it would lead. My original research dealt only with Yarrow Mamout. I wrote four articles about him, each bigger and better than the previous one. But I had nothing of book length. I felt satisfied and had no greater ambitions. I knew that his blood line died out in 1851 with the death of Nancy Hillman. Plus, although I met the Turner family early in my research, they insisted they were related to Nat Turner. When I discovered that couldn’t be true, I more or less gave up. Then one day it occurred to me that Aquilla Yarrow’s wife was named Mary Turner and lived in this tiny community in Maryland where the slave Turners lived. I followed a hunch that the black Turners had been slaves of a white family named Turner who were connected to the Bealls that owned Yarrow. The hunch proved correct. The evidence that Mary Turner was related to the other Turners in Pleasant Valley is extremely strong. So since my original expectations were low, I was not disappointed at all. I am pleased with how it all turned out. I have to give Fordham credit for its support in publishing the whole story. Another academic press that was interested only wanted to publish the Yarrow part of the story.

How much of your research was dependent on the existence of the African American Slave Trade Database?

The database was certainly useful. I had attempted to find similar records before I knew of its existence. I have enormous respect for the three men who started it and for what they’ve done.  It’s an impressive effort and a very important resource. Its principal value for me was in looking for a slave ship captained by “Capt. Dow,” which was the name Yarrow gave Peale. There was no Dow in the relevant period, but there was James Lowe. So I seized on that. However, by the time I finished my research, I was convinced that Yarrow was talking about Captain Christopher Lowndes because the Lowndes family was a prominent family in Georgetown.The sense one gets from reading Peale’s diary is that Yarrow mentioned Capt. Dow because he thought the name would be familiar to Peale. Yarrow did work for Christopher’s son Francis. In context, it seems similar to how someone today might reference the Kennedys. But Peale was very hard of hearing, and Lowndes is a strange name that sounds a lot like Dow when you hear it. Indeed, the first time someone used the name around me, I had her spell it out because it sounds as though the D came first.

Did Yarrow’s painting make you want to know more about him?

Yes, is the short answer. The long answer is that I couldn’t believe that no one had researched a black man who was the subject of two formal portraits in the early 19th century.  I was egged on by the response I got from an art history magazine when I asked about doing an article.  They wrote back that art history looks at paints and techniques and such, not the “sitter.”

Why not John Singleton Copley’s “Head of a Negro?” The same Negro appeared in at least two of his paintings and some say he was familiar with the subject? What of his descendants? Rembrandt, Rubens, Anne Louis Girodet and Gericault all painted Negroes.  Do you have any interest in unearthing any of their stories? Seems as if they might be equally compelling.

Again, one important thing about Yarrow was that he experienced the horrors of a slave ship.  There is a distinction between being a Negro, being a slave and actually being on a slave ship.  The overall conceit of the book is that it is a case study about race in America. I have the face of an African who endured a slave ship, and I can trace his family to Harvard. That is a story line.  One of the historians that I ran across, Jerome Handler, has a wonderful database of slavery and slave trade images online.–]]

Plus, unlike “Head of a Negro” and many other images of African Americans, Yarrow Mamout was a famous man in his day. He owned bank stock at a time when very few white men owned bank stock. He was an extraordinary human being. So it’s not only the painting.

How much did you have to tease the history to bring out a story?

Not a bit. I did have to simplify the story. My first draft was quite precise and also almost unreadable. A series of revisions made it more of a narrative and gave it a storytelling flavor.

How do you suppose that slave purchasers first recognized that Yarrow was different, that he was indeed a Muslim? Why did it make a difference for just a few of the Muslims that were recognized, Particularly since you suggest that there were others that may have also come from Futa Jallon in Africa but were not necessarily accorded the same “kind” treatment?

I don’t have an answer, only speculation. As you note, I think there were a number of Muslims on the Elijah. I think Captain James Lowe was fully aware of his good fortune. Since he apparently was a Marylander, he knew that Muslim slaves were unusual, and he knew they would command a premium. It was not just their religion; it was that they may have been educated and in the least more sophisticated. I don’t think Yarrow alone got good treatment. I assume that Joseph Moor, the grocer in Georgetown that I talk about, was on the ship. He obviously was freed and became well known. And the story about Shadrack Nugent, who seemed descended from Muslims, shows he and his ancestors were relatively well treated. Yarrow’s good fortune, if you can call it that, was to be purchased by Samuel Beall and to be a body servant. That’s why he stood out more than the others.

If Muslims were not good field workers why weren’t they poorly treated? From Slave Ship to Harvard makes it sound as if their poor performance in the field simply got them a better job in the house. There must have been plenty of talent among slave populations that no one bothered to recognize because it wouldn’t have served their purpose. Would you agree? If so, did you unearth any other examples?

I don’t think it is so hard to understand why the planters would treat Muslims better. Some, such as Yarrow and Diallo, were educated. Since they could read and write, even though in Arabic, they were better educated than most white Americans then. They were not just strong backs. There was also a mystique about Muslims whether because of Shakespeare or because colonial Americans thought that Islam was closer to Christianity. Men in colonial times took special note of Muslims and Jews, as different but interesting people. They didn’t think of them in the same way they thought of other Africans.

I suspect that the distance from slavery to Harvard would have been much shorter if there were not so many obstacles to African-American education, yet you mention many slaves and former slaves who could read and write and were willing to spread their knowledge at their own peril. The first black school at Harpers Ferry opened after the Civil War with 16 teachers overwhelmed by 2,500 students. What do you believe happened to this passion for education? Do you believe it was overwhelmed by “black codes” and other impediments placed by whites?

At one point in my research, I sat down with a Fulani Muslim and an Algerian Muslim that I met at the Smithsonian African Art Museum. The Fulani was Tierno Bah. He explained that the name Tierno means “learned.” If a man has memorized the Quran — a feat that usually is achieved around age 35 — he earns the title Tierno, although in Tierno Bah’s case it was simply a given name. The Algerian agreed. Throughout the Muslim world, memorization of the Quran is a distinction, although Westerners tend to differentiate between memorization and knowledge. In any event, Bah said that “education is the most important thing” there is. It reminded me of Robert Turner Ford’s remarks at his Harvard reunion in 1984. I wondered if the passion for education that I see even today in the Turner family — they are remarkable women— somehow goes back to Futa Jallon. And yes, I think the black codes, the Georgia men and the slave owners in the Deep South beat out of most slaves whatever hopes and aspirations they may have had when they came on the slave ships. I wouldn’t attribute this all to Islam or slaves educated in Africa. I don’t think either Arthur Sands or Robert Anderson of Pleasant Valley, Maryland were descended from Muslims, yet they had strong views about the importance of education. But then, these were black men who lived in comparative freedom and in association with whites, so they saw for themselves the advantages of education.

All of the folks on which you focus were dependent upon their owner’s or town’s benevolence. You don’t mention or make too much of their force of will except when Yarrow trusts his hard-earned savings to less-than-savory folks and then has to remake his fortune at least three times. Do you believe Yarrow was an outlier or an example? Force of will is impossible to measure?

Yarrow was not an outlier. Arthur Sands founded the first colored school in Pleasant Valley even though he himself couldn’t read. Robert Anderson of Pleasant Valley was the one who bought the land in the first place. I found a photograph of him after the book was in production.  He was a stonemason and a bear of a man. One of the white women that I talked to remembered that his descendant once told her father, “You and me are just alike really. We have children and want the best for them.” That’s why it is important to study African Americans in a border state like Maryland. They weren’t beaten down like slaves in the Deep South, and I have quotes to that effect in the book. In the first draft of the book, I drew a comparison between African slaves like Yarrow and the fictional Ben Hur, who was a wealthy, educated Jew that the Romans enslaved. Force of will alone isn’t enough. One has to have talent and some cultural background in the benefits of education. The families that I write about had both.

I want this book: Politics & Prose OR

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