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The man known variously as Umar, Omar, Umaru, Omaroh, Monroe, and Moreau was born in Futa Toro (modern Senegal) about 1770. (Most printed and online sources use Omar but modern scholars have settled on Umar.) When Umar was about five years old, his father, an upper-class Muslim with multiple wives, was killed in a war and thereafter Umar was raised by his uncle. He received an education in Africa, learning the Qu’ran, Islamic practices and prayers, reading and writing Arabic, and some mathematics. Umar described himself as having been a scholar, a teacher, and a merchant in his homeland.
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It is unclear how Umar wound up as a slave. Some believe that he was convicted of a crime, for which his people, the Fulani, sold him into slavery. He wrote in his 1831 autobiography, vaguely, that “there came to our place a large army, who killed many men, and took me, and brought me to the great sea, and sold me into the hands of the Christians.” In an 1819 letter he implied that he was living in the cultural center of the Mandingo Muslim people in Bure at the time of his capture and there was, indeed, an invasion of Bure by anti-Islamic tribes about 1806-1807. Umar ibn Said is believed to have arrived in Charleston in 1807, shortly before the foreign slave trade was terminated.
Umar was purchased by a Charleston man who was a relatively kind master until his death within the year. His second owner, a Mr. Johnson, forced Umar into demanding physical labor in his rice fields. Umar described Johnson as “small, weak, and wicked . . . a complete infidel who had no fear of God.” Umar fled on foot from his second master, running for about a month before arriving in Fayetteville on August 29, 1810. There he was jailed and advertised as a fugitive slave. During his imprisonment, Umar used coals from the fireplace to write prayers to Allah on his cell walls in Arabic.
After about ten days of notoriety derived from the strange pictures that he drew in the jail, Umar was purchased by James Owen of Bladen County. He lived with some degree of privilege at the Owen plantation known as “Milton.” He reportedly had a small, private house, a horse, and was recalled by Owen family descendants to have been a butler or overseer of the flour mill. Umar wrote that he was fed the same food as the family. Across the river from James Owen was the “Owen Hill,” the plantation belonging to his brother, John Owen, a future governor (1828-1830). John Owen also took great interest in Umar and during the Civil War, the James Owen family, including Umar, lived at “Owen Hill.”
Umar actively practiced his Islamic faith for many years. James Owen procured for him a copy of the Qu’ran in English in order to facilitate Umar’s learning English. As Umar learned some English, the Owens hoped that he might convert to Christianity and to that end, James Owen, with the help of North Carolina Chief Justice John Louis Taylor and Francis Scott Key, procured a Bible in Arabic in 1819. (The 1811 leather-bound Bible is now owned by Davidson College.)
On December 3, 1820, “Omeroh” joined the Owens’ Fayetteville church, First Presbyterian, and attended services with them regularly. When James Owen moved to Wilmington in 1835, Umar was provided with a room in the family’s Front Street home. A Washington, D. C., writer described Umar at that time as “of feeble constitution” and “treated rather as a friend than as a servant.” Life in the state’s most bustling town brought Umar added celebrity. He was the subject of newspaper and magazine stories, many of which contained factual errors including the often propagated idea that Umar was an “Arabian Prince.” The writers frequently focused on his devotion to Christianity, a devotion now debated among scholars.
Umar ibn Said is best known for the brief autobiography that he penned in Arabic in 1831 and sent in 1836 to Lamine Kebe, a freed slave and Muslim of Futa Toro, living in New York and preparing to return to Africa. His fifteen-page manuscript is the only extant autobiography written by an enslaved person in a native language. Umar’s notoriety brought many visitors to the Owen’s Wilmington residence. Because people were so fascinated with Umar and his Arabic script, he often was asked to translate something such as the Lords Prayer or the Twenty-third Psalm. Fourteen Arabic manuscripts in Umar’s hand are extant. Many of them include excerpts from the Qu’ran and references to Allah.
Umar refused several offers to return to Africa as a Christian missionary. (His refusal to accept freedom and return to Africa have served to advance further questions as to why Umar was sold into slavery and whether he had fully accepted Christianity.) His wide acclaim in his own time likely helped to keep him from hard labor. He maintained a place of honor in the Owen household. Umar was named in the slave schedule for the 1860 census. For the James Owen household, a 91 year-old male slave is listed as “an African Prince called ‘Monroe.’”
When he died at Owen Hill, probably in July 1863, he was buried in the family plot at the Bladen County plantation. (While most sources cite Umar’s death as 1864, two obituaries have been found, one from July 30, 1863 and the other from August 6, 1863, that report “Uncle Moreau” having died “a few weeks ago.”) The headstone supposedly was removed about the time that the body of James Owen was moved from the Owen Hill plot to a cemetery in Wilmington. Two known photographic portraits of Umar were made during his lifetime, further evidence of the esteem with which the Owens held him. The manuscript of his autobiography, thought to have disappeared in the 1920s, resurfaced in 1995 and was sold to a private buyer at auction. It has since been on display at a variety of institutions. Umar ibn Said continues to intrigue scholars, as he was likely the most educated slave in North Carolina and one of the best documented practicing Muslim slaves in America.
Allan D. Austin, African Muslims in Antebellum America (1997)
Autobiography of Omar ibn Said, Slave in North Carolina (1831) online at http://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/omarsaid/menu.html
Thomas C. Parramore, “Muslim Slave Aristocrats in North Carolina,” North Carolina Historical Review (April 2000): 127-150
Michael Gomez, “Muslims in Early America,” Journal of Southern History (November 1994): 671-710
Ambrotype of Umar Ibn Said, courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, UNC Chapel Hill.