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A former slave in Georgetown

Over the next week, we will be pairing excerpts from Jim Johnston’s From Slave Ship to Harvard with the historical comic strip “Flashbacks” by Patrick Reynolds. Together they tell the story of Yarrow Mamout. Read yesterday’s post “A painter and his subject’s humble origins.”

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

Free African Americans were not uncommon in Georgetown. The 1800 census counted 277 free blacks, 1,449 slaves, and 3,394 white people. Tax assessments showed other blacks owned property in Georgetown. According to the 1815 assessment not only did “Negro Yarrow” own a house but so did “Negro Hercules, Semus husband.” His house was valued at $500 versus $200 for Yarrow’s. Brooke Beall’s ledger shows that he sold a “plough” and ozanburg cloth to “Negro Tom” and that “Negro Wilks” also had an account with him.

Chronicler David Warden mentions a Scotsman, Mr. Maine, who had a nursery for fruit trees and hedge thorns, such as pyrocantha, on the hill above Georgetown. Maine employed young blacks, whom he taught to read and write and instructed them “in moral duties.” Warden added: “Joseph Moor, a manumitted black, who lived with him [Maine] is now a respectable grocer in Georgetown.” As mentioned previously, Moor was a contemporary of Yarrow’s and, given his name, was probably also a Muslim.

Peale’s initial interest in Yarrow seemed to be scientific. Here, to Peale’s way of thinking, was someone who might prove men could live to the ripe old age of 140 and who might tell Peale how he did it. Just as he had painted the Negro slave James, who had turned from brown to white, Peale would paint Yarrow and then try to determine the secret of his longevity. There was more than science in Peale’s mind, though. Here was a black man of substance, one owning bank stock and a house. Peale might come away with a portrait to prove to the world that black people were the equal of whites if they had equal opportunities. Peale was quite proud of the portrait of the Reverend Absalom Jones, a black minister in Philadelphia, that his son Raphaelle had painted in 1810.

In his diary, Peale described how in late January he and Joseph Brewer went to Yarrow’s house to make the arrangements: “[T]hen went to Georgetown to pay a short visit to Mr. Joseph Brewer & Coll. [Colonel] Marburys families—and to know whether I could get an Old Negro named Yarrow to set to me, I went with Joseph Brewer to Yarrows House & engaged him to set the next morning.”

Peale worked at Yarrow’s house. It was not the best address in Georgetown. Few of the surrounding lots were developed. On one side of the property was the graveyard of the Presbyterian church. On another was a small creek. The portrait took Peale two days. At the end of the first day, he wrote: “I spend [spent] the whole day & not only painted a good likeness of him, but also the drapery and background.”

The next morning, before going back to Yarrow’s, Peale took time to investigate Yarrow’s background. This brief investigation turned up crucial information on Yarrow, which Peale saved in his diary for posterity: “However, to finish it more completely, I engaged him to set the next day — and early in the morning when [went] to see some of the family how [who] had knowledge of Him for many years & whose Ancesters had purchased him from the Ship that brought him from Afreca — a Mr. Bell in a Bank directed me to an ancient Widow who had set him free.”

This was in fact Thomas Brooke Beall, president of the Columbia Bank of Georgetown, and the “ancient Widow” was, of course, Margaret Beall, widow of Yarrow’s owner Brooke Beall. Naturally, the two Beall men were distant cousins. The name “Beall” was pronounced “Bell.” The bank president was a descendant of Ninian Beall, who supposedly was fond of explaining with gusto that his name should be pronounced like a “ringing bell.”

Peale’s main purpose in going to the bank was to confirm Yarrow’s claim. After all, in those days, stock ownership was something for wealthy men, like Brewer and Marbury. Yarrow was not in their league. His small wood frame house at the edge of a creek near the Presbyterian church’s graveyard was a far cry from Marbury’s elegant brick house overlooking the river.

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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Recent Comments

  1. […] 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 […]

  2. […] Mamout. Read previous posts “A painter and his subject’s humble origins” and “A former slave in Georgetown.” Cartoonist Patrick Reynolds' "Flashbacks." Used with permission. […]

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