Muslim American slaves

Muslim African slaves in America

Here’s an angle on American slavery that I’d never considered. How did the treatment of African slaves who were Muslim differ from non-Muslim slaves?

I knew nothing about the role of Muslim African slaves in 18th and 19th century America until I read a fascinating book called A History of Islam in America published by the Cambridge University Press. The author is a professor of religion, Kambiz GhaneaBassiri.

Most white slave owners were ignorant of differences between people in Africa. To them, Africans were a commodity bought and sold for their labour and that was it. But a minority seem to have taken an interest, if only to find ways of exploiting those differences for their own advantage.

They noticed that some of their slaves knelt to pray five times during the day while working on the plantation. Many were literate as they been brought up writing and reading Arabic. And they didn’t identify with non-Muslim Africans who having not accepted the word of Allah were therefore unenlightened.

Some white American slave owners began to regard the Muslim slaves as a cut above the others – and these slaves encouraged this notion. After all, they wanted better treatment and held out the hope that it might be possible to find the means to be freed one day.

Professor GhaneaBassiri notes that some were even given supervisory roles over other slaves because they were seen as being brainier. He also notes that of course some Muslim Africans had been slaveowners back in their homeland or had engaged in wars of religion with pagan Africans in the decades before.

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During the War of Independence against the British, some African Muslims fought with the colonists. Names on the military muster rolls include Bampett Muhamed, Yusuf ben Ali and Joseph Saba. It’s well known that Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of the Qur’an and opposed discrimination against Muslims and Jews.

In the years after independence, the new United States experienced years of conflict with the so-called “Barbary” states of north Africa. The US even suffered the indignity of its own sailors being captured off the African coast and sold into slavery – by Africans. Karma is the word that comes to mind.

Behind the scenes, a still miffed Britain encouraged the north African rulers to attack American shipping no longer protected by the Royal Navy after independence in 1783. In desperation, the US turned to Muslim African slaves in its diplomacy with the Barbary states to try and put a stop to the onslaught on its ships.

Christopher Columbus

Toppling statues and renaming streets – nothing new

Across the world – but particularly in the United States and the United Kingdom – we see the toppling of statues and a move towards the renaming of streets. Much of this a reaction to the association of people and names with historic racism.

Opinions are divided and I suspect will become even more so. But here’s the thing. There’s nothing very new in any of this. People have been tearing down statues for centuries. Names of streets and buildings have changed according to political fashion. What we’re witnessing is not something unprecedented.

Toppling statues and temples in Ancient Egypt

When I first toured the temples of ancient Egypt in 2009, I was really struck by the amount of early Christian defacing and destruction of the Pharaohs’ legacy. To make the point that the Christian God was better than Horus or Osiris, Christian zealots got to work with their chisels and hammers.

Byzantine crosses were etched deeply into the walls of temples that were already two thousand years old by that time. And an entire temple to the god Serapis was torn down by Christian monks. Goodness knows how many statues came toppling down.

Romans – big into toppling statues

The Romans were forever tearing down the statues and melting down the coinage of previous emperors no longer in favour. And then they became Christian and evolved into the Byzantine empire – with Constantinople as its capital – there were the endless iconoclastic disputes.

This is when some Christians believed all icons, statues and visual depictions of God were pagan graven images and had to be destroyed. A point of view revived centuries later in the Protestant Reformation. That saw English churches stripped of their ornate rood screens and effigies of the Virgin Mary and saints.

Walls with colourful images were similarly whitewashed. All of which left us with the simple village church that most people think is “traditional” in England. In fact, it was the product of an act of massive nationwide vandalism orchestrated by King Henry VIII’s minister Thomas Cromwell.

Renaming entire cities – a long history!

Renaming streets and even whole cities has been a recurrent feature of history. New York was called New Amsterdam under Dutch rule. Toronto was originally called York before its incorporation in 1834. In Australia, Melbourne was called Bearbrass once upon a time.

In India, Kokata was formerly Calcutta and before that the very English, Fort William. Africa has renamed many cities to re-Africanise them. So in Zimbabwe, the city of Salisbury was renamed Harare in 1982. While Kenya removed the English colonial name Broderick Falls from one of its towns and chose instead Webuye.

It’s unsettling for many people to see statues toppling to the ground. But rest assured, that they were almost made to be toppled. Historically speaking, it’s amazing how long some of our statues have lasted.

As somebody who grew up in Britain, I was certainly shocked on a visit to Richmond, Virginia to see how the Confederacy is still very much in your face. Of course the historian inside me is interested. But I don’t need a boulevard full of slave owners memorialised in stone and bronze to remind me of the Civil War.

George Floyd Martin Luther King

George Floyd – learning lessons from Martin Luther King

Looking at how the American state and politicians reacted to the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 and comparing that to what has happened since the killing of George Floyd in 2020 is, frankly, depressing.

Far from lessons not being learned – we seem to have actually gone backwards!

Comparing Martin Luther King and George Floyd aftermaths

In my large collection of magazines is a copy of Life from 19 April 1968. The front cover is dominated by a moving image of Coretta Scott King – widow of the assassinated Martin Luther King – at his funeral service. Reading the article was a grim reminder following the killing of George Floyd of how racism remains an American problem after 50 years.

On 29 March 1968, Martin Luther King was shot by James Earl Ray on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. President Lyndon Johnson showed a lot more tact than President Donald Trump. He ordered a day of national mourning and the Vice-President Hubert Humphrey attended his funeral.

Riots followed both the Martin Luther King and George Floyd deaths

Nevertheless, there are grim parallels with the George Floyd killing. In the days that followed King’s assassination, there was a wave of riots in Washington, Baltimore, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Kansas City. This wasn’t in any way welcomed by the King family and as with this year’s rioting, it was stores in mainly black neighbourhoods that were torched.

What is shocking with the riots after the death of Martin Luther King compared to what has happened after the killing of George Floyd – was the scale of riot fatalities in 1968. A total of 39 people, mainly African Americans, were killed in a week.

But the magazine (which you can see me holding below) notes in an almost casual way:

…but this was a surprisingly low number considering the scale of the unrest. In Detroit alone last year 43 people died in five days…

Life magazine – 19 April 1968
Martin Luther King

That’s a reference to the 1967 Detroit race riots that were symptomatic of the city’s long, slow industrial decline through the next two decades. Police tactics in the 1967 Detroit riots had been along lines that President Trump seems to endorse. Thousands of rounds were fired by what Life called “trigger happy police and National Guardsmen”.

In 1968, they reduced the number of rounds fired significantly – though the death toll was still pretty high.

Political leaders acted swiftly after Martin Luther King

Politicians in the aftermath of King’s death tried to move swiftly to stop “radicals” taking advantage of the situation. The Life article describes how the Mayor of New York, John Lindsay, went on a walkabout in Harlem on the night King was killed (pictured below – photo courtesy of Life magazine). He also worked with credible community leaders to calm things down.

As with the George Floyd riots – there was the looting in the Martin Luther King disturbances. The New York Police Commissioner Howard Leary noted that 60% of the looters were under sixteen years of age. Nevertheless he was pressed on what more hadn’t been done to protect private property. Exasperated, he retorted:

What are we supposed to do, shoot the next Martin Luther King?

Life magazine – 19 April 1968

Compare Presidents Johnson and Trump

President Johnson – a man often written off because of Vietnam – had an impressive record compared to other presidents on shoving civil rights legislation through a less than sympathetic Congress. In the days that followed the death of King, he got a Civil Rights bill through the House of Representatives and signed it into law.

That law made it illegal to refuse to sell a home to somebody just because they were black. Johnson also reached out to city mayors and invited some to the White House. What a contrast to the name calling after George Floyd and the Coronavirus between the White House and governors and mayors today.

Lewis Powell – the handsome assassin of Abraham Lincoln

Lewis Thornton Powell (sometimes known as Payne) was one of the four conspirators hanged for their part in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He also looked like a GQ model. And his handsome features were rather tastelessly picked up by the new technology of photography.

Powell was tasked with killing US Secretary of State William H. Seward and managed to stab him several times but not fatally. Nevertheless, it was enough to earn him a place on the gallows with his fellow conspirators. And at the same time – he acquired a degree of celebrity which was quite modern.

In recent years, Lewis Powell has become noteworthy for the prison photographs taken at the time, which could easily grace the front cover of a men’s fashion magazine.

Lewis Powell – handsome but violent

Although Powell was a very striking young man (only 21 when he was executed), he did have a record of violence including a horrific attack on an African American maid. Powell had also supervised his father’s slave plantation before fighting with the Confederate side in the American Civil War.

The manner in which he tried to slaughter Seward suggested an unbalanced mind. Seward was already bed ridden after a carriage accident and Powell found his way into the great man’s bedroom and stuck a blade into his neck several times. Amazingly, the Secretary of State survived and indeed went on to serve under Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson.

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Lewis Powell was arrested very soon after his botched murder attempt. This led to the prison photos that included him dressing up in different suits. He struck cocky poses and stared dreamily into the lens.

Quite why this was entertained by his captors is beyond me.

The hanging of Lewis Powell was a gruesome affair with him taking at least five minutes to die. One eye witness claimed that he writhed at the end of the noose with such vigour that at one point his knees rose so he was in a seated position.

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Here is Lewis Powell in his 1860s male model glory!