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PHOTO ESSAY

Africans in America

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Abdul Rahaman

Abdul Rahaman, engraving of a crayon drawing by Henry Inman, 1828. New York Public Library; Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.

Abd Al-Rahman (1760?-1829) was born into an aristocratic family in Timbuktu in the middle of the eighteenth century. His family moved to the stronghold of Futa Jallon, where he was taught to read and write Arabic in Muslim schools. In 1788, Abd Al-Rahman, a family man and cavalry officer, was captured while on a mission to the Atlantic coast and sold into slavery. After months of travel he came to be purchased by Thomas Foster, a plantation owner in Natchez, Mississippi. Abd Al-Rahman escaped the plantation after a few weeks, but soon returned when he found no support available to him elsewhere. He is known to have maintained a noble, serious bearing at all times, and he remained a devout Muslim while enslaved. He became a foreman on Foster's plantation and, incredibly, was recognized as a member of the aristocracy by an Irish doctor who was visiting the plantation and who had spent time at Abd Al-Rahman's family's compound in Futa Jallon many years prior.

This recognition sparked a chain of events that eventually saw Abd Al-Rahman and his wife Isabella freed in early 1828. They were supposed to return to Africa but, at Foster's insistence, they first began a tour of the American Northeast that was designed to provide them with stories of America's wealth and productivity that they might take back with them to Africa. Abd Al-Rahman was not impressed by the cities he visited, however, and instead met with people who might be able to donate funds that would allow him to purchase his children back from Foster so that they might join him in Africa. Moving from city to city, Abd Al-Rahman met with varying levels of success. His meetings became fodder for the newspapers, however, and he became a polarizing figure in the nascent antislavery debate of the period.

Abd Al-Rahman eventually raised enough money to return to Africa in 1829, though not in the presence of his children. He died a few months later. His fundraising efforts had not been in vain, however: in another year, his eight children and grandchildren were able to cross the Atlantic and join Isabella in Africa.

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