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A slave and a scholar
N.C. forum, exhibit put focus on Omar Ibn Said
 
Published Wednesday, October 27, 2010 5:42 pm
by Herbert L. White

There’s renewed interest in the life and times of Omar Ibn Said, a West African scholar and North Carolina slave.

Davidson College will host a symposium on Said Nov. 14 at 7 p.m. in Room 900 at Union Hall. It is the first in a series of lectures on African American history at Davidson, which is home to several Said artifacts. The keynote speaker will be Allan Austin, author of “African Muslims in Antebellum America: A Sourcebook” and former professor of English and Afro-American studies at Springfield (Mass.) College. The symposium is free.

The Museum of the Cape Fear in Fayetteville will open the exhibit “The Life of Omar ibn Said” on November 4. The exhibition will feature the original Arabic-language manuscript of Said’s 1831 autobiography, the only known example written by a slave in native language.

“Omar debunked the myth that Africans came here as captives without religion, without education, without literacy,” said Amad Shakur of the Center of the African Diaspora in Charlotte. “Omar educated at the University of Timbuktu in jurisprudence. He is what we would call a scholar today.”

Said (1770-1864) was born into a wealthy West African Fulbe family. He was captured and sold into slavery in 1807, but escaped from Charleston, S.C., three years later only to be caught in Fayetteville and jailed as a fugitive. Said impressed the locals by writing in Arabic on the walls of his cell and Bladen County farmer James Owen, the brother of future N.C. governor John Owen (1828-1830), bought him to work his plantation.

Owen gave Said, an active Muslim, an English-language copy of the Koran to help him learn the language with the intent of converting Said to Christianity. With the help of North Carolina Chief Justice John Louis Taylor and Francis Scott Key, Owen presented Said an Arabic-language Bible in 1819. He joined Owens’ church, First Presbyterian in Fayetteville, in 1820 and gained notoriety when he moved to Wilmington as a translator of biblical texts into Arabic.

Said’s refusal to return to Africa as a Christian missionary and the inclusion of references to the Koran in his writings have led to debate regarding his religious leanings. Regardless of his religious leanings, scholars generally acknowledge Said as the most educated slave in North Carolina and one of the best-documented practicing Muslim slaves in the U.S.

“He spoke three languages and wrote three languages,” Shakur said, “and was held in very high regard for his regard for literacy. Of course, that reflects the African’s regard for literacy.”

The original manuscript of Said’s autobiography, found in a trunk in Virginia in the 1990s and sold at auction, has since been on display at numerous institutions. Also included in the exhibit are two early translations of the manuscript.

“The Life of Omar ibn Said” will be on display through Dec. 5. On Nov. 5, a state highway historical marker will be unveiled in Fayetteville.

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