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Freedom delayed, bought, lost, and regained

Over the next week, we are 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 previous posts “A painter and his subject’s humble origins” and “A former slave in Georgetown.”

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

Margaret also told Peale that Yarrow became the property of her husband Brooke upon the “decase” of Brooke’s father. She and Brooke had planned to build a larger house in Georgetown and move there when it was done. Brooke asked Yarrow to make the bricks for the house and out houses, promising he would set Yarrow free when the job was done. Peale wrote in his diary:

Yarrow completed his task, but his master died before he began the House, and the Widow knowing the design of her Husband, told Yarrow that as he had performed his duty, that she had made the necessary papers to set him free & now he was made free. . . . Yarrow made a great many Bows thanking his Mistress and said that ever Mistress wanted work done, Yarrow would work for her — but she said that she never called on Yarrow to work for her.

Peale did not mention what kind of house Margaret was living in, whether it was the older wood frame house or the brick house that her daughter, Christiana, and son-in-law, Benjamin Mackall, built on Mackall Square. Nor did he ask a question that would be useful today: What happened to the bricks? Were they sold? Did her daughter and her husband, the Mackalls, use them in their new house? Or did Yarrow use them for the cellar of his house, because there are old bricks on the property to this day? But then Peale was merely recording things in a diary to jog his memory later, if need be. He was not writing for posterity and publication.

Peale went back to Yarrow’s to finish the portrait. The two men talked while Peale painted. Peale later wrote in his diary what Yarrow told him about his financial misfortunes:

After Yarrow obtained his freedom he worked hard and saved his Money untill he got 100$ which put into an Old Gentlemans hands to keep for him — that person died and Yarrow lost his Money — however it did not disperit him, for he still worked as before and raised another 100$ which he put into the care of a young Merchant in Georgetown, and Yallow [sic] said young man no die — but this merchant became a Bankrupt & thus Yarrow mett a 2d heavy loss — yet not disperited he worked & saved a 3d Sum amounting to 200$, some friend to Yarrow advised him to Buy bank stock in the Columbia Bank — this advice Yarrow thought good for he said Bank no die.

This version of the story is remarkably similar to what Yarrow told David Warden several years earlier. Yarrow had not changed it in the retelling. In fact, the words “young man no die” and “Bank no die” appear in both Warden’s book and Peale’s diary. The two men were directly quoting Yarrow’s words.

The quotes from Yarrow also serve as a reminder that English was a second, third, or even fourth language for him and as evidence that he understood investing, business, and law. He was not just blindly following instructions. In law, corporations are said to have a perpetual existence, which Yarrow correctly and poetically simplified to “Bank no die.”

Peale could have empathized with Yarrow’s fierce determination in the face of financial difficulties. Memories of all the money problems Peale had as a young man must have come back to him. How much worse, Peale probably thought, to be broke when you were old — and black.

While Peale was working on the painting that second day, he and Yarrow were getting more comfortable with each other. Peale had the opportunity to ask Yarrow about his lifestyle and the secret to his longevity:

Yarrow owns a House & lotts and is known by most of the Inhabitants of Georgetown & particularly by the Boys who are often teazing him which he takes in good humor. It appears to me that the good temper of the [m]an has contributed considerably to longevity. Yarrow has been noted for sobriety & a chearfull conduct, he professes to be a mahometan, and is often seen & heard in the Streets singing Praises to God — and conversing with him he said man is no good unless his religion comes from the heart. He said he never stole one penny in his life — yet he seems delighted to sport with those in company, pretending that he would steal some thing — The Butchers in the Market can always find a bit of meat to give to yarrow — sometimes he will pretend to steal a piece of meat and put it into the Basket of some Gentleman, and then say me no tell if you give me half.

The acquaintance of him often banter him about eating Bacon and drinking Whiskey — but Yarrow says it is no good to eat Hog — & drink whiskey is very bad.

I retouched his Portrait the morning after his first setting to mark what rinkles & lines to characterise better his Portrait.

Of course, the best evidence of what Yarrow was like is the portrait itself. At age eighty-three, he was still a vigorous, confident, and cheerful man. It is a remarkable image for someone who was imprisoned on a slave ship from Africa through the Middle Passage to America, subjugated as a slave for forty-four years, and then twice penniless in his old age. Perhaps Peale was amazed that after all he had been through the man could still smile.

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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