BOOK: Johnston on the Yarrow-Turners of Virginia-Maryland


James H. Johnston, From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamout and the History of an African American Family. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2012.

Via Fordham University Press:

From Slave Ship to Harvard is the true story of an African American family in Maryland over six generations. The author has reconstructed a unique narrative of black struggle and achievement from paintings, photographs, books, diaries, court records, legal documents, and oral histories. From Slave Ship to Harvard traces the family from the colonial period and the American Revolution through the Civil War to Harvard and finally today.

Yarrow Mamout, the first of the family in America, was an educated Muslim from Guinea. He was brought to Maryland on the slave ship Elijah and gained his freedom forty-four years later. By then, Yarrow had become so well known in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., that he attracted the attention of the eminent American portrait painter Charles Willson Peale, who captured Yarrow’s visage in the painting that appears on the cover of this book. The author here reveals that Yarrow’s immediate relatives—his sister, niece, wife, and son—were notable in their own right. His son married into the neighboring Turner family, and the farm community in western Maryland called Yarrowsburg was named for Yarrow Mamout’s daughter-in-law, Mary “Polly” Turner Yarrow. The Turner line ultimately produced Robert Turner Ford, who graduated from Harvard University in 1927.

Just as Peale painted the portrait of Yarrow, James H. Johnston’s new book puts a face on slavery and paints the history of race in Maryland. It is a different picture from what most of us imagine. Relationships between blacks and whites were far more complex, and the races more dependent on each other. Fortunately, as this one family’s experience shows, individuals of both races repeatedly stepped forward to lessen divisions and to move America toward the diverse society of today.

In the January 2013 issue of Historically Speaking, Donald A. Yerxa interviews Johnston:

“…I was attracted initially by the art. The first portrait of Yarrow that I saw was painted by James Alexander Simpson of Georgetown in 1822. It is not as good as the Peale portrait. But seeing it caused me to google “Yarrow Mamout” and discover the Peale. I consulted an art historian who told me that portraits of blacks prior to the Civil War were rare and thought I might have stumbled onto something worth writing about. The story just kept getting better and better as I researched. It wasn’t until several years later, when I came across Yarrow’s in-laws the Turners and learned that Robert Turner Ford had gone to Harvard, that I realized I had to write a book. One of Ford’s nieces, Cynthia Richardson, said to me: “We never thought of ourselves as special.” But of course as the book demonstrates, the family is more than special; it is unique…”

Read the rest.


ARTICLE: Littlefield on History, Poetry, and Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard

Native Guards

Daniel C. Littlefield, “Reflections on the History Behind the Poetry of Natasha Trethewey.” Historically Speaking 14, no. 1 (2013): 15–18.

Natasha Trethewey, Native Guard: Poems. First Edition. Boston: Mariner Books, 2007.

First paragraph:

“Rita Dove, Pulitzer-Prize winner and former Poet Laureate of the United States as well as of the Commonwealth of Virginia, introduced the nation’s newest Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey’s first published volume of poetry by quoting James Baldwin: “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.”1 In considering Natasha Trethewey’s work, focusing mainly on her Pulitzer-Prize winning volume Native Guard, I will ruminate on the history behind some of the poems, or rather the history the poems suggest rather than the personal story they might tell. I am particularly struck by four themes in this volume. There is the theme of violence, most particularly of domestic violence that recalls a personal tragedy and has ramifications that extend far beyond the South, the locus of her poetry, and even beyond the nation. But there is also the violence engendered by war and racism, by dispossession and deprivation, and although these ills also extend far beyond the South and even beyond the nation, I want to contemplate them mainly in the region James Cobb has called “the most southern place on earth.” He was referring to the Mississippi Delta, or more particularly to the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, “the common flood plain of the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers.” It is an area that David Cohn described as culturally extending from “the lobby of the Peabody hotel in Memphis” to “Catfish Row in Vicksburg.”2 But I will follow the Mississippi River to the Gulf Coast and include Louisiana, as Trethewey does in her work, and as many people do who live and work in this section of the country….”

The President of Emory Praises 3/5ths Compromise (Context & Responses)

In the Winter 2013 issue of Emory Magazine, Emory University President James Wagner suggested the ‘3/5ths compromise’ was “a way to temper ideology and continue working toward the highest aspiration,” move beyond “polarization,” and “facilitated the achievement of what both sides of the debate really aspired to—a new nation.”

Excerpt from original column:

“…One instance of constitutional compromise was the agreement to count three-fifths of the slave population for purposes of state representation in Congress. Southern delegates wanted to count the whole slave population, which would have given the South greater influence over national policy. Northern delegates argued that slaves should not be counted at all, because they had no vote. As the price for achieving the ultimate aim of the Constitution—“to form a more perfect union”—the two sides compromised on this immediate issue of how to count slaves in the new nation. Pragmatic half-victories kept in view the higher aspiration of drawing the country more closely together…”

Continue reading “The President of Emory Praises 3/5ths Compromise (Context & Responses)”

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