By Melissa Henry
Even before Trump began dismantling any semblance of developing race relations in America, many believed that ‘Muslim’ and ‘foreigner’ were interchangeable terms. Few know of the influence African Muslims had on the communities that line the Mississippi River or grace the southeast coast of the United States. Some clearly understand that Columbus was not the first to reach North America and that West Africans from the kingdom of Mali crossed the Atlantic and interacted with indigenous peoples here as early as 1311. Still the information regarding the hidden heritage of African Muslims in the Americas is lacking. Most assume Islam was brought to the Americas during the latter 18th century as official immigration laws were formed. Those of us who have had to hunt frantically for some connection to our past know differently. My search for my family’s past began when I was a Berkeley undergraduate, majoring in English and minoring in African-American studies. At that time I knew almost nothing of what the continent of Africa had to offer, a rich, varied culture and history dating back thousands and thousands of years. My senior thesis ended up being a 40 page essay on the Presence of African Muslims in Antebellum America. Combing through narratives detailing life during slavery and witnessing the beauty and diversity of the culture that persists gave me such hope. At that time I only dreamed of being able to witness firsthand the legacy of my ancestors’ past. In order to increase my chances, I knew I would have to head to the Southern region of the United States where all of the original slave history had been formed and the narratives were carefully preserved. I spent years traveling the area, hoping to expose my children to our strong roots. We toured Savannah, GA admiring the rich culture there after visiting Charleston and Hilton Head to learn about the Gullah People, but it was in Burke County, NC that I found a true gem.
I had always read about the examples of inspirational individuals (including Islamic scholars and Muslim royalty) who had been kidnapped from West Africa and dragged into the hellish experience that was the American slave system. Names such as Abdur Rahman Ibrahima, Bilali Muhammad, and Ayub Ben Soloman graced the pages of my early research. Their examples were few and far between, but amazing nonetheless. The stories of how these African Muslims had succeeded in preserving key elements of culture, some even convincing their owners to set them free and allow them to return to their native lands amazed and inspired me. To find the living descendants of one such patriarch was a dream. It took years and years, but this dream was actualized in 2012.
It all started when I became friends with my 88 year old neighbor, Mr. Woodard, a decorated Veteran, retired mechanic, and avid farmer. After spending a year in his presence, absorbing all I could, I learned that his father had built a barn on a local plantation where a particularly memorable ancestor was held captive as a slave. He was lovingly known as the Old African by his family here and as Negro Prince by the white community. We traveled to the Swan Pond Dairy, a well known plantation, now a preserved historical site, to investigate. Here we found out more exciting news! The granddaughter of Waightstill Avery, the plantation owner, knew of Tamishan. She shared that he practiced Islam and was able to impress her grandfather with his knowledge and ability to speak seven languages, as well as Arabic. In addition, she said, his skillful Qur’anic recitation kept the local slave owners in awe. They would gather, she told me, to listen to Tamishan recite.
The African American community in Burke County knew well of the noble prince who was mentioned by a third-party in a newspaper. Most exciting for me was the fact that this African Muslim had descendants who knew of his legacy. In fact there were a large number of these descendants with the last names Avery and Fleming populating the small town where I lived. A local barber, Jimmy Fleming, was next on my list of people to see. The story he told me brought tears to my eyes for it told of fearless perseverance and peaceful resistance. Jimmy explained that the story had been passed down throughout his family for as long as he could recall. He shared with me this account of Tamishan, a well documented part of his family history that appeared in a book, A Summer Remembered, written by one of his family members.
During slavery, Tamishan made it known that he would never be a docile servant. He revolted every chance he got, in word and in action. Jimmy shared: “As my grandfather told me and his father told him, Tamishan lived on Swans Pond on the Johns River. Old Avery was the largest plantation holder in the county. Tamishan was of noble birth. He was a proud man [who]…never accepted his lot as a slave and often encouraged other slaves to feel the same way. Soon he became known as a troublemaker. When he asked Avery if he could return to Africa in exchange for compensation, Avery agreed, with certain conditions. One condition was that he had to be taken to Charleston by William Walton, a merchant who traded in slaves, and two, that the captain of the ship was not to let Tamishan to go ashore alone. Another was that he exchange four Africans to replace him. All agreed to the terms and Walton took Tamishan to Charleston where he boarded a ship for West Africa. During the voyage, the captain and Tamishan had long conversations. Because Tamishan had so impressed the captain with his knowledge and skills, when they arrived on the West coast of Africa, the captain allowed Tamishan to go alone into the interior. He returned in four days with four hundred dollars in gold dust, the value of four slaves. He told the captain to give the money to his former master because he could not sell his people into slavery.” Jimmy Fleming said he had heard the story so many times that he could recite it by heart.
Recently a friend of mine, Sandy West, who has been working on preserving historical documents at the Morganton History Museum found an old store ledger that makes mention of a Negro prince who was making a purchase on behalf of his owner in 1790. This was a joyous discovery for her, and it served as confirmation for those of us who have been researching the story. In fact, when I first presented this story to the Citizen Times, the reporter who followed up with me asked if there was any evidence. At that time I knew I had none except for the family and community who spoke of him. It was quite miraculous that when I called to speak to Sandy, who is known as somewhat of an expert on Tamishan, she had this new discovery to share with me. To myself and my neighbor Mr. Woodard, to his descendants and those who knew his family, there was never any question about his existence. To this day, Tamishan’s wisdom in the face of a terrible oppressive force provides a source of comfort for the family and larger African American community. Nothing can take away the pain that our people have gone through during our time here, but hearing stories of survival during one of the darkest chapters in human history is like seeing a spark of light in a sea of darkness. Knowing that a knowledgeable Muslim man broke the chains of slavery and impacted this small rural town in the foothills of Appalachia serves as a reminder for me. The painting of Tamishan that still hangs in the Burke County library in downtown Morganton brings me joy every time I see it. The history speaks for itself. Jimmy added: “Slavery life was hard. People worked all the time but our families were kept intact. When emancipation time came, we were free to come and go as we saw fit. Papa and Grandpapa secured land and changed their name to ‘Fleming’ because Avery was a slave name. So that’s how we came to be Flemings and not Averys. Every time Grandpa would see his former owner coming down Burkemont Avenue, he would take great pleasure in sitting on his porch like a man of leisure, showing his former owner that he was his own boss now. This used to greatly irritate old man Avery.” Many have taken on the great responsibility of educating their progeny. Tamishan, the Old African, was a source of pride for his descendants, who knew that he used knowledge to rise above his oppressor. More important was the strength his children inherited from him, demonstrated in their brave decision to change their surname as a means of disassociating themselves from the institution of slavery. Just listen to Grandpa Fleming’s message to his offspring: “Never accept a substandard status” DePapa, the modern patriarch of the family taught his children. He emphasized: “We could not be slaves so long as we knew who we were. We come from a proud line of Africans of noble birth. We kept our pride because we know who we are. You should do the same. Never let anyone mistreat you.” I am honored to have been permitted to participate in the sharing of this story. I pray the words are of some benefit to those who read them. Anything that has been helpful is due to the Most High.
The original account by the Fleming family can be found here: http://www.enquirer.com/editions/1999/02/11/loc_up_from_slavery.html