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An unwilling immigrant

From slave ship to Harvard

Created date

July 24th, 2012

America s story is full of tales about people who came to the New World in search of a better life the religiously persecuted who settled Massachusetts, the pioneers who later forged their way west, and the millions of immigrants who saw their first glimmer of opportunity in the Statue of Liberty s towering silhouette. But not everyone came willingly. From the early 1700s to 1808, when the Constitution outlawed the international slave trade, countless ships loaded with human cargo anchored in American ports to sustain the growing inventory of slaves that made millionaires of traders and plantation owners alike. Historians typically write about this chapter of American history from a sweeping, birds-eye-view perspective primarily because so few records exist about the lives of individual slaves. It s for this reason that James Johnston s From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamout and the History of an African American Family (Fordham University Press, 2012) is such a valuable addition to the subject s literature. This compact, well-organized volume recounts the life of African Yarrow Mamout, from his arrival in Annapolis, Md., aboard the slave ship Elijah in 1752, to his death as a free man in the early 19th century. In this time, Mamout proved himself a man of exceptional intelligence.

Unrelenting drive as a free man

After his manumission in 1796, he worked and saved money, investing in banks and real estate in Washington, D.C. s Georgetown district, amassing an impressive net worth for a person who spent almost half a century in forced servitude. His extraordinary drive even attracted the attention of notables such as the eminent portrait artist Charles Willson Peale, whose subjects included George Washington. Peale immortalized Mamout on canvas in 1819. In addition to reviving the details of Mamout s life, Johnston captures quite well the horrors of slavery. His writing conjures vivid images of the fetid conditions aboard slave ships and the sorrows of African families separated by the auction block. Johnston also traces the Mamout family s lineage well into the 1900s to show how, in the face of great hardship, a former slave s progeny managed to carve a place for themselves in America. Mamout s distant relative, Robert Turner Ford, went on to graduate from Harvard, joining the ranks of just a handful of African-Americans at the time. A Washington-based lawyer and journalist, Johnston poured years of research into this book, and it shows. Slavery is perhaps the most conspicuous blemish on an otherwise great nation s history, andFrom Slave Ship to Harvard shows us how one family flourished in spite of it. More importantly, however, it reminds us of how difficult it was to do.