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.

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