Perseverance: The Story of Mamadou Yarrow

Written by | Featured, Islam, Society

As the conversation about civil rights and equal access to opportunity rages, the story of an enslaved African child turned successful American businessman offers deep insight into the power of the spirit over the challenges of an imperfect world.  

Mamadou Yarrow (1736–1823) was born a Muslim in Guinea, West Africa to a family that educated him in secular and spiritual knowledge. At the age of 16, Mamadou—whose name is an Africanized variant of “Muhammad”—was able to read and write Arabic and some English. At that same age Mamadou was captured and sent to Britain’s American colonies to live the rest of his life as a slave in a land ruled by racism and greed.

Upon arriving in Maryland in 1752, Mamadou was purchased by a man named Samuel Beall. The Bealls were a prominent family in Maryland. Samuel Beall owned sixty-three properties in his lifetime. In addition, he was the sheriff of Frederick County, a justice of the peace, and a leader in the American Revolution in the Maryland colony. 

Because of his intelligence and good character, Beall made Mamadou—who would come to be known as Yarrow Mamout—his man-servant. Yarrow assisted in many of Beall’s major decisions relating to business, civics, and the American Revolution.

Portrait of Mamadou Yarrow
By Charles Wilson Pealle, 1819

Upon Beall’s death just after American independence, in 1777, his son Brooke inherited Yarrow and promised to grant his freedom one day. They moved together to Potamac, where Yarrow soon had a son, Aquilla Yarrow, with a slave woman on an adjacent property. Eventually, Brooke Beall opened an import/export business in Georgetown, and Yarrow lived and worked there. At times, Yarrow was rented out to prominent men in Georgetown to help their businesses. (A management consultant before there was such a thing.) Although Beall collected the money for Yarrow’s work, he credited at least some of it to an account he kept for Yarrow. When Beall died in 1796, his widow fulfilled her husband’s promise and gave Yarrow his freedom. He was sixty years old.

Once free, Yarrow began earning money for himself. His son Aquilla was still a slave, so Yarrow purchased his freedom and brought him home. In 1800, Yarrow acquired a half lot in Georgetown, now 3324 Dent Place, NW. He saved his earnings and bought stock in the Columbia Bank of Georgetown. The ownership was probably through a nominee since the Black Codes limited a Black person’s legal protections. Yarrow was a jack of all trades, including a charcoal maker, a stevedore, and a basket weaver. He was also the best brick maker in the town, earning one-and-a-half times what a white brick maker could. He had many white friends who were businessmen and lawyers to advise him on legal and financial matters. Thus, he sold his stock in the Columbia Bank before it went bankrupt. He then loaned some of that money to a white merchant, taking back a deed of trust as a security interest. After Yarrow died, the merchant stopped paying on the loan, but years later, Yarrow’s niece, Nancy Hillman, the daughter of a sister, won a lawsuit over the deed of trust that gave her the remaining principal plus interest. By the time of his death, Yarrow was a well-known businessman and likely the most respected African-American in Georgetown. 

As Muslims in America, we understand this subtle protest against injustice. We recognize the triumph of his faith over the chains of greed and arrogance. In the Holy Quran, it says:

“O ye who believe! seek help with patient perseverance and prayer; for Allah is with those who patiently persevere.”

Holy Qur’an, 2:154

Even without the direct lessons from his Muslim family or community, he was able to hold onto this principle, having faith that the godly qualities he carried with him would please His Lord and improve his circumstances. He trusted these reflections of God would be attractive to all of God’s creation and bend their will to His Will.

Because of his intelligence, honesty, graciousness, patience, and trustworthiness—traits Islam teaches for its followers—he was offered opportunity after opportunity, not out of charity for an African slave, but out of a real desire to bring these useful qualities to a community and industry that needed them. 

He was raised as a Muslim, so he never worshipped the image of his oppressor; he never considered that because a man had different colored skin that he was different in the eyes of the Creator of all skins. He knew the people who where wronging him were ultimately only harming themselves, and he knew his real salvation lay in developing a character approved by God Himself and exemplified by His Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be on him. So he was able to bear his trials with patience and eventually win not just his freedom but also secure freedom for his son. 

Furthermore, he was blessed to provide resources for his family for generations to come in the same wicked environment that had enslaved him. Yarrow knew what lay ahead for his oppressors because God Almighty had already predetermined their fate. In the Quran it says:

“Whoever does a good deed—it is for himself; and whoever does evil—it is only against himself. Then to your Lord you will be returned.”

Holy Qur’an 45:16

He made sure their misguidance didn’t destroy his goodness. He believed in the power of Islam and used that power to protect his soul even in a society run by greed and arrogance. 

This Black History Month, let Yarrow Mamout’s story be the one that is remembered and replicated by all of those who suffer oppression at the hands of the unjust. The injustice is only temporary, while the attributes of Allah, the Most Gracious, Ever Merciful, are everlasting and will always prevail.

Last modified: February 2022

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