Saturday, December 27, 2014

Q&A with James H. Johnston

James H. Johnston is the author of From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamout and the History of an African American Family. An attorney and journalist, he also has edited an edition of The Recollections of Margaret Cabell Brown Loughborough. He is based in Washington, D.C.

Q: How did you come across the story of Yarrow Mamout, and how did you conduct the research for the book? 

A: Let me begin with a summary of the story.  Yarrow Mamout came to Maryland on a slave ship in 1752. He was 16 years old. He eventually was freed and settled in Georgetown where he owned a house.  

In 1819, the eminent portrait painter, Charles Willson Peale, heard of Yarrow (his last name) and painted a gorgeous portrait that is now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Yarrow was the most prominent African American in Georgetown then.   

The book proceeds to follow his family down through the generations, including his daughter-in-law Polly Turner Yarrow, for whom Yarrowsburg, Maryland is named, Simon Turner, who fought for the Union in the Civil War, and Robert Turner Ford, who graduated from Harvard University in 1927.

The book was the result of a series of serendipitous encounters. The first was when I noticed a portrait of Yarrow by James Alexander Simpson at the Georgetown public library. It intrigued me. It wasn’t until I did an Internet search for “Yarrow Mamout” that I turned up Peale’s more impressive portrait, which is on the cover of the book.

Surprisingly, only one person, a local researcher, had bothered to go beyond the portraits and look into who Yarrow Mamout was. An art history book I read had referred to Yarrow dismissively as “the chuckling Negro.”

That was the beginning. From then on, astounding discoveries just kept coming and swept me along like a log in a river. I learned Yarrow was brought to America on a slave ship. He was Muslim. He could read and write.  

Freed when he was 60 years old, he earned enough money to buy a house and lot in Georgetown, own stock in a bank, and loan money to white merchants. Almost everyone in Georgetown in the early 1800s, black and white, knew him or knew of him. You wouldn’t think that such an extraordinary man could be lost to history, but he was.

There was no plan or method to my research though. Fortunately, Charles Willson Peale was a curious man who investigated Yarrow’s background when he painted the portrait and recorded the results in his diary. He only wrote a page or two, but the diary was a Rosetta stone that I used to decode the rest of the story. 

The name “Yarrow” is, of course, unusual and that made it easy to look for him in land records, the census, and old newspapers. I also found him in the probate records of his owners. After all, the sad truth is that if a human being was a slave, he was, legally, just another piece of property like a bedstead or horse to be passed on or sold when his owner died. 

Q: What surprised you most in the course of your research? 

A: Just about everything surprised me. I was surprised not just to find his signature on a deed at the National Archives but also to see he signed in English followed by the Arabic word “Bismallah,” which translates as “In the Name of Allah.”  

Yarrow bought his son’s freedom. I was amused to read the manumission or freedom document that his son’s owner wrote, saying the boy was free provided he did not leave the county with anyone other than his father and not even with him if he didn’t get his own freedom. Yarrow took the hint and got his own manumission.

Once, I was looking at a Maryland map when my eyes fell on the words “Yarrowsburg Road.” This led to the discovery that Yarrow’s son had moved to Washington County, Maryland, near Harpers Ferry, and married Mary Turner. She became known as Polly Yarrow.  Yarrowsburg is named for her because she was the midwife and delivered all the babies, black and white, for miles around.

I was pleased to be able to prove that Mary Turner’s great great grandnephew went to Harvard in 1923, but by then, surprises in my research had become commonplace. 

Q: You write, "Among the many ways in which Yarrow Mamout was unusual was that he kept his African name, or at least an Anglicization of that name." How did that happen, and can you describe more about the other ways in which he was unusual? 

A: I came across a number of slaves with African names in the probate records of early Maryland planters. They were buying Africans directly from slave ships. One can imagine a newly arrived slave insisting to his owner that he already had a name and that he wasn’t going to answer to a new name of the owner’s choosing.

If the African was talented enough, as Yarrow was, and the owner was considerate enough, as Yarrow’s owners were, then the slave’s preference apparently would be honored. The fact Yarrow could read and write Arabic and was able to learn English was probably a factor as well.

Few Americans were literate then. Yarrow may not have been as educated as his owners, but he was better educated and quicker than most of the white men around him. Yarrow had a poetic way of speaking even though English was a third or fourth language for him.  

He so impressed a writer in 1816 that the writer quoted Yarrow. He explained that he got his freedom because his owner told him he had gotten all the work out of the “Yaro bone.” Yarrow saw the rhyme between his name and “marrow” and was using it in a joking way.  

He told Peale that owning bank stock was like owning a chicken, every spring and every fall it laid an egg, meaning it paid dividends. 

Q: Why did you decide to continue with the history of his family rather than focusing just on his life? 

A: Good question and one that I was asked by publishers when I was shopping the book. One publisher wanted me to end the book at Yarrow’s death in 1823. He felt it was a full story and would fit into a series of small books on Maryland history that he was publishing.  

But for me, the research had been a learning experience in Black History, and I wanted to share the learning with readers. One can’t understand what happened to the six generations of this family without understanding Black History.  

For example, when Yarrow stepped off the slave ship onto the dock at Annapolis on June 4, 1752, the legislature of colonial Maryland had just taken up a bill to make it more difficult for slaves to gain their freedom. I was surprised by how harsh the laws were and how they kept getting worse.  

Generations later, when Yarrow’s son and wife were listed in a schedule of free persons of color in Maryland, it was because Nat Turner had led a bloody rebellion of slaves and free blacks in Virginia, and the legislature of Maryland was trying to show voters that it was taking action to prevent such things in the future.  

And when in 1860, a family member named Arthur Sands bought freedom for his wife and children, he did so because John Brown had attempted another slave revolt at Harpers Ferry, and the Maryland legislature, wanting to please voters and also be vindictive, passed a law that unconditionally prohibited slaves from being freed. Maryland had been trying to do this ever since Yarrow arrived in 1752.  

In any event, Arthur Sands was too clever. He simply purchased his family’s freedom before the law took effect. Telling the story this way yields a book that is a history of race in America as viewed through the eyes of this one family. 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I continue to write about history. The White House Magazine just published my article “Lincoln and the Washingtons.” You would think that we know everything there is to know about Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, but I found new things.

The manuscript for my next book is being reviewed by publishers. It is about the Kennedy administration policy toward Cuba. The working title speaks for itself:  American Hubris: Kennedy, Castro, Assassination. 

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: Two things.  First, I think this is the first time an African American family has been traced from arrival on a slave ship through the generations up to today. Of course, Yarrow’s bloodline died off, and the narrative shifts to the family of his son’s wife. But it is extraordinary because the current generation knew their grandmother and she knew Polly Yarrow. In other words, only two people, their grandmother and Polly, separate the family today from Yarrow Mamout. It’s astonishing.

Second, as you would expect, I give book talks. The reactions of two audience members stand out. Once, in a talk to a largely black audience in Kansas City, Missouri, one man challenged me, saying most Black History deals with the horrors of slavery. He asked why I had glossed over that.  

I told him that the book delved into slavery more than my presentation did, but more importantly, I thought there was a need for role models in the study of Black History and, therefore, wanted the book to be about black achievement.  

Those who seem moved the most by my presentations are modern-day African immigrants. They identify with Yarrow because they’ve lived in Africa, and while they haven’t come here on slave ships and aren’t slaves, they face the lingering racism in America.  They can empathize with what Yarrow Mamout faced and was able to accomplish despite that. I find great reward in telling the story. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

1 comment:

  1. The 1822 portrait "Old Yarrow" by James Alexander Simpson is on permanent display at the Georgetown Branch Library's Peabody Room, 3260 R Street, NW, Washington, DC. Hours are Monday and Wednesday, 11:00-7:00 and 2nd and 4th Saturday, 9:30-5:30. Information 202.727.0233.