Film Challenges Convention on Muslims, Africans, Slave-Era America
By Marcia Lynx Qualey, Engage Minnesota
Prince Among Slaves
7 p.m. Tues., Feb 5 on TPT Ch. 17
11 p.m. Sun., Feb. 10, TPT Ch. 2
Officially, the first mosque in the U.S. was erected in 1929. This building was constructed by Syrian and Lebanese immigrants in Ross, North Dakota, and has since been demolished. But those Midwestern immigrants were hardly the first observant Muslims in the Americas. Others had worshiped on U.S. soil hundreds of years before.
It is difficult to say how many African Muslims were brought to North America as slaves. Scholars have placed the number in the thousands or tens of thousands. There is little possibility of an accurate count at this time, but historians such as Michael Gomez argue that, whatever their number, the influence of Muslim slaves on the larger African-American community was considerable.
Prince Among Slaves, set to air locally on Twin Cities Public Television on Monday, Feb. 4, tells the story of one of these influential Muslim slaves, Abdul Rahman Ibrahima Sori. The film is based on the widely praised biography of the same name by Dr. Terry Alford.
The Prince in the Kingdom of Futa Jallon
Abdul Rahman’s story begins in the Kingdom of Futa Jallon, a mountainous region in the current-day Republic of Guinea. According to Dr. Boubacar Barry, a historian and descendant of Abdul Rahman, Futa Jallon was founded in the early 1700s after a Muslim revolution in response to the slave trade.
The kingdom was successfully established, Dr. Barry writes, but Futa Jallon remained caught in the slave trade’s web. According to film co-executive producer Alexander Kronemer, by the middle 1700s, the nations of West Africa were in an almost constant state of war, fighting to acquire arms and avoid enslavement.
Abdul Rahman was born in the midst of this, in 1762. His family ruled Futa Jallon from Timbo, which was then a town of airy, large-roomed houses surrounded by hedges and dominated by a large mosque.
Abdul Rahman received a traditional Muslim education, learning to read and write the Arabic of the Qur’an. The prince was a quick study, and his father sent him abroad for further education, first to Macina and later to Timbuktu, both centers of learning in modern-day Mali. There, he studied not only religion, but other subjects as well, such as geography, astronomy, calculations, and law.
When he was 17, Abdul Rahman returned to Futa Jallon. He rose in the ranks of his kingdom’s army, married, and had a son. In 1787, his father dispatched him to head a force of 2,000 to defend the kingdom. Another group of Africans was attacking in what was, as Kronemer notes, a state of almost continual war. The battle did not go well. Abdul Rahman was captured and, in 1788, he was manacled and put on a ship headed to the Americas. He ended up in Natchez, Mississippi—then a collection of 20 houses, a wood fort, and a handful of taverns of stores—as a slave to a barely literate farmer named Thomas Foster.
Abdul Rahman’s Life in Mississippi
After a period of difficult adjustments, Abdul Rahman began work on the Foster farm and married a fellow slave named Isabella. Due in part to Abdul Rahman’s intelligence and hard work, Foster’s farms and businesses grew. After a time, Kronemer says, the prince was granted religious freedom, the right to his own garden, and the ability to go freely into the town of Natchez. An Irish trader who had been saved by Abdul Rahman’s father tried to ransom his protector’s son, but Foster would not sell his slave for any price.
This situation ground on for years. Abdul Rahman maintained his garden and his faith while working for Foster. He and Isabella raised nine children.
Then, in the late 1820s, things changed. According to Kronemer, Thomas Foster Jr. began an affair with one of Abdul Rahman’s daughters, Susy. To save his son’s marriage, Thomas Foster Sr. planned to sell off the young woman. This was a decision that understandably enraged Abdul Rahman. The sale didn’t happen, but the prince was spurred to take action.
After nearly 40 years as a slave, Abdul Rahman used his connections in Natchez to write a letter to Sultan Abd al-Rahman II of Morocco, presenting his case. The Sultan’s favorable response was passed to President John Quincy Adams, who approved the purchase and liberation of Abdul Rahman pending Foster’s agreement. By this time, Thomas Foster was one of Natchez’s wealthiest and most influential planters.
Thomas Foster’s most valuable slave was now in his mid-60s. The plantation owner agreed that, if Abdul Rahman were to leave the country, the Fosters would release him. It is assumed Foster feared that, were Abdul Rahman to stay, he might increase abolitionist sentiment or foment a rebellion.
Abdul Rahman’s Return to Africa
A local fundraiser helped raise the money to buy Abdul Rahman’s wife her freedom. But finding enough money to free nine children was, Kronemer writes, not as easy. Abdul Rahman traveled north to raise funds. This angered Thomas Foster, who wanted the prince out of the country.
In 1828, Andrew Jackson won the presidency, creating a trickier situation for Abdul Rahman. The prince apparently was warned that a pro-slavery White House might return him to Mississippi. So, in January 1829, Abdul Rahman cast off for Liberia with his wife and more than a hundred other free blacks. According to Kronemer, Abdul Rahman still held out hope that he could buy his children’s freedom and bring them to Africa.
But forty years of slavery, and then the journey and process of starting over, had sapped the prince’s strength. He died in July 1829.
After the death of Thomas Foster Sr., his slaves were divided among his children. All but one descendant agreed to sell Abdul Rahman’s children into freedom and, except for one son, Prince, all were freed and joined their mother in Monrovia, Liberia.
The film, however, doesn’t end here. It follows the prince’s descendents to April 2003, when the first reunion of his Liberian and American families was held in Natchez, Mississippi.
Prince Abdul Rahman’s story is by no means typical. However, he was certainly not the only Muslim, the only royalty, nor the only educated African, to be enslaved and brought to the United States. According to scholars like Michael Gomez, a revision of how we understand slave-era history is only just beginning.
The hourlong documentary is set to air locally on Twin Cities Public Television on Tuesday, Feb. 5 at 7 p.m. on TPT Channel 17; and again on Sunday, Feb. 10 at 11 p.m. on TPT Channel 2. In some cities the film will air Monday, Feb. 4 at 9 p.m. Central time: Check local listings.
More about the film:
- Watch the trailer
- Read a synopsis, biographies, interviews and more at the Unity Productions Foundation website.
Other Muslims, including leaders and scholars, who came to the U.S. as slaves:
- Omar ibn Said (1770-1864) wrote his autobiography in Arabic in 1831.
- Spelman College History Professor Michael Gomez addresses the topic of African Muslim slaves in Black Crescent: The Experience and Legacy of African Muslims in the Americas.
- Allan D. Austin’s African Muslims in Antebellum America was published in 1984 and condensed for republication in 1997.
- The stories of slaves Abu Bakr al-Siddiq and Salih Bilali are addressed in Philip D. Curtin’s Africa Remembered.
–Marcia Lynx Qualey is a mother, a writer, and is affiliated with the University of Minnesota in various ways. She’s also an editor here at EngageMN.com.