This post was written by Alison Barr, Manuscript Department volunteer.
The Charles Frederick Heartman Collection at the New-York Historical Society is comprised of a vast array of material mostly related to American history and culture. Heartman was a well-known and respected book and autograph collector, a bookseller and author who wrote on diverse topics but had a keen interest in African Americana. He was an interesting man. He collected books from a very young age, and he owned a bookshop first in Vermont, then in New York City, and finally in New Jersey where he hosted book auctions complete with elaborately themed dinners. In part for health reasons, Heartman then moved his family to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, with a vision of setting up a utopian society of writers, artists and thinkers, that he called the Book Farm (A nod to George Ripley’s Brook Farm). While his dream of a utopian society was never realized, Heartman continued to scour southern bookshops for books and manuscripts and to publish under the auspices of The Book Farm of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The pictured manuscript captures the breadth of the Heartman collection. It is a very rare example of Arabic text (assumed to be a Christian prayer) written by a Muslim African slave. On the back of the manuscript is written “Old Morau Srvant of Gen. Owen Wilmington NC Jan. 8th 1845.”
Much is known about “Old Morau”, and he was a well-known figure in his lifetime. Certainly, Heartman knew of “Old Morau” and the rarity of the manuscript he had uncovered. His given name was Omar Ibn Sayyid. He was born in Futa Toro (Senegal) in about 1770 and worked as a teacher and merchant there until 1807 when he was captured by slave traders and brought to America. When he fled his first slave master, he was captured and jailed in Fayetteville, North Carolina. While jailed, he wrote Islamic prayers on the walls and floor of his cell. Upon hearing of this learned, captured slave, General Owen, who later fought with the Confederates, purchased Omar from his previous owner. By Omar’s own account, Owen treated him well and gave him a translated copy of the Quran to help improve his English. Later, with the help of Francis Scott Key and the American Colonization Society, Owen purchased an Arabic translation of the Bible for Omar. (Omar’s Bible is held at the Smith Rare Book Room at Davidson College) Owen and Key believed that Omar had converted to Christianity, and he did attend Bible study sessions and church services regularly with the Owen family.
His conversion to Christianity brought him fame, and his story, especially his conversion, was recounted in many publications. In 1825, The Christian Advocate published a biography entitled “Prince Moro” which emphasized his embrace of Christianity and repeated the false assumption that Omar was an African prince. In 1831, when Omar wrote his autobiography in Arabic, his reputation grew, and he became a nationally known figure. After all, Omar was the author of the only known slave autobiography written in his native language. When he moved to the more cosmopolitan Wilmington with the Owen family in 1837, he became somewhat of a public figure and seemed to please his audience by writing in Arabic, usually the Lord’s Prayer or a psalm. He also encouraged other African Muslims to convert to Christianity, gaining favor with the American Colonization Society, which wanted to send Omar to Africa as a missionary. Although Omar never explained why, he declined the offer to return to Africa, and, in fact, never returned to his homeland in his eighty-five years.
Whether Omar actually converted to Christianity is still debated among scholars. In the translated version of his autobiography, Omar speaks of the different words he uses to pray but does not suggest that his beliefs have changed. And some of the Arabic translations of the Psalms are in fact quotes from the Quran.