Omar Ibn Said was unusual among slaves in the antebellum United States in that before he was captured he was highly educated and could read and write fluently at a time when most African slaves were illiterate. Said’s autobiography is unique because it is the only personal account of a slave written in his native language while he was in bondage in the United States.
Omar Ibn Said was born in 1770 along the Senegal River in Futa Tooro, West Africa to a wealthy Muslim family. When his father died, Said at age five was sent to a nearby town to study Islam and become a teacher. Religion was paramount in Said’s life and he was devout to the Muslim faith. With extensive religious training Said became well educated and fluent in Arabic.
At age thirty-seven, after returning to his village, he was captured by a slave-raiding party. Said was taken to the Atlantic coast of Africa where he was placed on a ship bound for Charleston, South Carolina. Said was brought across the Atlantic in 1807, the last year slaves could be legally imported into the United States from the African continent.
When Said first arrived in America he was sold to a North Carolina slaveholder who, according to Said, was Godless. This deeply disturbed Said because of his strong faith and he fled his owner's farm. Said was captured and promptly jailed in Fayetteville, North Carolina. While in jail he wrote on his cell walls with ashes in Arabic pleading for release. His jailers could not read his writings. However James Owens, who lived nearby heard of Said's unusual abilities and purchased him from his first owner. Owens claimed Said was pleased to be purchased by a man of strong faith.
Owens took an interest in educating Said and purchased a copy of the Holy Q’uran in English which he read to his new bondservant along with a Bible which would help him learn English. Around 1820 Said converted to Christianity and began to attend church with the Owens family where he had his own seat reserved. This conversion was not necessarily sincere since most of Said’s writings still made reference to Mohammad or Allah.
In 1831 Said wrote the only autobiography of a slave written in his native language, Arabic. Said was offered numerous opportunities to return to Africa, via Liberia as a Christian missionary, but each time he declined the opportunity. Omar Ibn Said lived to be 94. His death in 1864 came as the Civil War was raging and Union forces were freeing slaves throughout North Carolina and Virginia. Said died, however, on the Owens farm without gaining his freedom.
“Autobiography of Omar Ibn Said, Slave in North Carolina, 1831,” The American Historical Review 30: 4 (July, 1925); http://library.davidson.edu/archives/ency/omars.asp; Sylvaine A. Diouf, Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas (New York: New York University Press, 1998).
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