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A man’s true worth

This is the final installement of excerpts from Jim Johnston’s From Slave Ship to Harvard paired with the historical comic strip “Flashbacks” by Patrick Reynolds. Together they tell the story of Yarrow Mamout. Read previous posts “A painter and his subject’s humble origins,” and “A former slave in Georgetown,” “Freedom delayed, bought, lost, and regained,” and “A case of mistaken identity.”

Cartoonist Patrick Reynolds' "Flashbacks." Used with permission. http://redrosestudio.com/.

A comparison of the Peale and Simpson portraits reveals curious similarities. Yarrow is wearing the same style knit cap in both, although the stripes are in different colors. The collar and buttons of his jacket are the same. He has a white shirt and red waistcoat in both paintings, but his jacket is unbuttoned in the Simpson to show more of the waistcoat. Even the pose, forehead wrinkles, and whiskers are the same in the two paintings. Yarrow looks significantly older in the Simpson painting, although he was in fact only three years older. Whether the difference stems from Peale’s desire to produce a flattering image or from some illness that caused Yarrow’s appearance to age rapidly is not known.

As for the clothes, Yarrow might have worn the same, or similar, clothes to both sittings, even if they were several years apart. While he had $200 in bank stock and a house in Georgetown, he was by no means a rich man. But another curious fact is that in the early 1800s, Georgetown College required students to have a blue jacket, blue pantaloons with yellow buttons, and a red waistcoat to wear on Sundays. One of Brooke Beall’s sons went to Georgetown for a semester or two before dropping out. Perhaps Yarrow was wearing a Georgetown uniform for both paintings, one he acquired from Brooke’s son or from one of the Georgetown boys, who Peale said were “teazing” him. Yarrow bought coarse ozanburg from Brooke Beall in 1790 and was probably wearing clothes made from that fabric when he was a slave, but he obviously dressed better as a free man, particularly when there was an artist around that wanted to paint his picture.

The only significant difference in clothing in the two paintings is that Yarrow has a leather greatcoat draped over his shoulders in the Peale painting. The expensive coat is something that only a wealthier man than Yarrow could afford. The coat is just the kind of thing that the great Charles Willson Peale might wear when traveling around Georgetown on a cold January day. It contributes to Yarrow’s look of wealth and substance. Thus, it seems likely that the painter draped his own coat over Yarrow for artistic reasons or to help make a statement about racial equality. Peale biographer Charles Coleman Sellers wrote this about the portrait of Yarrow Mamout: ‘‘When he [Peale] was cool toward the sitter, or uninterested, the portrait is often unrevealing, stiff, and even awkward. But when his heart was warm toward his subject he recorded not only the features but his own friendly feeling with both sympathy and charm.”

Yarrow died on January 19, 1823. Even in death, Peale helped distinguish him: He wrote an obituary and sent it to newspapers. Rarely did newspapers then carry obituaries for African Americans. The Gettysburg Compiler was one of the papers that carried Yarrow’s. Since the obituary contains much the same information and phrasing as Peale’s diary, he surely wrote it. But there is an added fact. The obituary said Yarrow’s body was interred in the corner of his garden, the spot he usually resorted to pray. Yarrow must have excused himself while sitting for the portrait, gone outside to the southeast corner of his lot, bowed to Mecca, and prayed.

Died — at Georgetown, on the 19th ultimo, negro Yarrow, aged (according to his account) 136 years. He was interred in the corner of his garden, the spot where he usually resorted to pray — Yarrow has resided in town upwards of 60 years — it is known to all that knew him, that he was industrious, honest, and moral — in the early part of his life he met with several losses by loaning money, which he never got, but he persevered in industry and economy, and accumulated some Bank stock and a house and lot, on which he lived comfortably in his old age — Yarrow was never known to eat of swine, nor drink ardent spirits.

That Peale was the author explains why the obituary was in a Pennsylvania newspaper.

Yarrow’s death was not the end of the family or Yarrow’s own narrative. He would be talked about in Georgetown for several more decades. Then there was his sister, his son, his son’s wife, and her relatives.

James H. Johnston, an attorney and journalist, has published extensively on national affairs, law, telecommunications, history, and the arts. His contributions include papers on local Washington, D.C., history, Yarrow Mamout, and an edition of The Recollections of Margaret Cabell Brown Loughborough. He is the author of From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamout and the History of an African American Family.

Instead of entertaining readers with make-believe characters, cartoonist Patrick Reynolds draws history. His “Flashbacks” about historical figures and events are carried in Sunday papers around the country. Recently, Reynolds has retold the story of Yarrow Mamout, relying in part on articles by Jim Johnston. The Washington Post in Yarrow’s Georgetown and the Staten Island Advance for New Yorkers carried the series. Reynolds makes quality history accessible to young readers as well as to adults.

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