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A slave and scholar, Omar Ibn Said led an exceptional life

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Omar Ibn Said spent much of his life as a slave on a Bladen County plantation, but some claimed he was reared as a Muslim prince in Africa.

The deeply religious man lived a life of celebrity, the subject of national newspaper and magazine stories despite his lowly status in the antebellum South.

Said (who last name also is spelled Sayyid, Saeed and Sa'id) is believed to have come to the United States in 1807, shortly before the foreign slave trade ceased. He would live deep into old age during the Civil War and died in 1963, before Congress passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that abolished slavery.

Next Friday, the state will unveil a roadside historical marker honoring Said in front of the mosque named for him on Murchison Road.

Activities are planned Thursday through Saturday in conjunction with the dedication. An original manuscript of his 1831 autobiography will be on display at the Museum of the Cape Fear, and the one-man play "The Life and Times of Omar Ibn Sayyid" will be staged at Seventy-First High School.

For many, this will be a first encounter with Said's fascinating story. His significance to the Cape Fear region and beyond is largely confined to a pool of academic scholars and those in the know in the Islamic and African-American communities.

"No, I think it's a fairly small number of people who have heard of him," said Ansley Wegner, a research historian with the N.C. Office of Archives and History.

Though Wegner had come across his name, she had never read anything about Said before researching his life for an essay.

"When talking about history, all segments of history should be taught," said Adam Beyah, a former imam of Masjid Omar Ibn Sayyid. "I take the position the more we can learn about ourselves, the more we can learn to be contributors of society. Somebody has to tell our story."

A religious scholar and teacher, Said wrote a brief Arabic manuscript that stands as the only autobiography in a native language by a slave in the United States. In her essay posted on the state Archives and History website, Wegner writes that Said "was likely the most educated slave in North Carolina and one of the best documented practicing Muslim slaves in America."

His Arabic Bible is preserved in the Davidson College Library's rare book room.

Resident Imam Abdul Haneef of Masjid Omar Ibn Sayyid said the historical marker shows that the inherent good in a human being never dies.

"It is a historical honor in the highest context to (recognize) a Muslim, a scholar, one who was from Africa who integrates all the connections for us as a people and as human beings," said Haneef. "He was first and foremost a human being. African by heritage and lineage, but also a scholar in the way of the Islamic faith. He became a slave and, in this hostile environment, became recognized by his faith.

"The fact that our (Muslim) community carries his name, his legacy lives on even after his physical death."

The roadside sign is the first in the state to recognize a Muslim, according to Michael Hill, the research branch supervisor in the Office of Archives and History.

From 14 percent to 20 percent of African slaves brought to the United States were Muslim, according to "The Life of Omar ibn Said" in the March/April issue of the educational magazine Saudi Aramco World.

The Muslim faith became entangled in controversy after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks carried out by Muslim extremists. A national furor was ignited a few months ago with the planned building of an Islamic center and mosque near the site of the World Trade Center attacks.

The N.C. Historic Markers Committee approved the Said marker in May.

Dr. Kelli Walsh, an assistant professor of history at Fayetteville State University, is a member of that committee.

The decision "was all based on historical significance to the region," said Walsh. "We leave politics out."

The committee discussed where the marker should be: in Bladen County, where he lived, or by the mosque named for him in Fayetteville.

They decided Murchison Road provided more visibility.

Even today - 147 years after Said's death at about 94 - his life story seems to leave more questions than answers. His autobiography and other accounts are riddled with potholes.

"Does he convert from Islam to Christianity, which some claim? Did he join the church as a method of survival for a slave? Was it a full conversion?" Walsh said. "There are just a lot of historical questions."

Among others:

What led to his being sold into slavery?

Was he really a prince?

And why did he refuse, despite several offers, to accept freedom and return to Africa as a Christian missionary?

In the 1860 census, a 91-year-old male slave by the name of Monroe is listed in the slave schedule for the Owen household as "an African Prince," according to the story in Saudi Aramco World.

Wegner writes that Said was known by various names, including Omar, Umar, Umaru, Omaroh, Moreau and Monroe. He reportedly had a small house and a horse. Owen family descendants recall that he was a butler or overseer of the flour mill.

"Nobody really knows how he came into slavery," she said. "He never went back to Africa. Maybe he had a reason. ...

"If people learn about him, they're going to learn about the strange nature of slavery. They'll hear about a slave who was purchased and not put to work. They encouraged his learning; they encouraged his learning of English. They got a Bible in Arabic for him. It's just an odd story, and one that people can learn from."

Said was born in Futa Toro, circa 1770, in what is now northern Senegal. In his 1831 autobiography, "The Life of Omar ben Saeed," he claimed 15 siblings in a prosperous and devout family. Over a period of 25 years, he studied the Koran, Arabic and Islamic practices from a brother and two other learned men. He described himself as having been a scholar, a teacher and a merchant in Africa.

"He was captured in his country and brought to America and sold into slavery in 1806, and that was the last year slaves could be legally brought in as slaves," Beyah said.

He was sold to a Charleston, S.C., man who died within a year. Said wrote that he was then sold to a "small, weak and wicked" man named Johnson.

Said, a small man, was forced into hard labor.

He escaped from his second master after a month and ended up in Fayetteville, where he was jailed and advertised as a fugitive slave. James Owen, the brother of future North Carolina Gov. John Owen, bought him and took him to the Owen plantation in Bladen County.

"He got over here and his interesting writing got the interest of a well-to-do slave owner who didn't need him to do the work," Wegner said. "He bought him for the novelty and took him home and let him become a scholar of religion on their dime."

Beyah has read that Owen was going to visit Morocco and asked Said if he wanted Owen to bring something back for him. Omar asked for an Arabic Koran.

Owen said if he got him an Arabic Koran, would he accept a gift of an Arabic Bible?

With the help of Francis Scott Key, who wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner," Owen acquired a Bible in Arabic in 1819, Wegner writes.

"He had the education equivalent to a PhD. He was very learned," Beyah said. "In his land, his father was a sheik, a religious man. His father sent him to school to be educated."

Unusual for the time, Said attended First Presbyterian Church of Fayetteville with his slave owners. He was baptized there in December 1820, but apparently continued to practice his Muslim faith.

When the family moved to Wilmington, ministers in the Port City were known to discuss their sermons with him.

"He was a scholar of the Bible," Wegner said. "People really enjoyed discussing religion with him."

She doesn't believe Said was a prince. But he carried himself with such dignity that some of the people of his day believed he was. One account says he would always wear a turban as an indication of his education.

People came from wide to visit him, and newspapers wrote about him. He sat for at least two photo portraits, certainly not customary for a slave.

"One reason Owen kept him, they were getting attention as well," Wegner said.

The family returned to the Owen manor in Bladen County during the Civil War. Some say Said was buried in the Owen cemetery, but even that remains in doubt.

"There were obituaries for him," Wegner said. "Amazing, to have a slave obituary."

FSU's Walsh calls him brilliant, articulate and well-written.

"You don't always think of a slave that way. But they were," she said. "They brought many of them here who had a lot to offer. We don't always look at slavery from the perspective of literacy. And we have that in this slave, Said."

Staff writer Michael Futch can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or 919-486-3529.

http://fayobserver.com/articles/2010/10/29/1041450

 

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