By Melissa Henry –
Although many believe that 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. I knew I would have to head to the southern region of the United States where all 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 by men far inferior to them, 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 many years, but this dream was actualized in 2012.
It all started when I became friends with my 88-year-old neighbor, Mr. Woodard, a farmer I was intent upon learning from. After spending a year in his presence, absorbing all I could, I found out that his father had built a barn on a local plantation where a particularly memorable ancestor had been held captive as a slave. This man, Mr. Woodard told me, had been Muslim. 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 to investigate and found out more exciting news. The granddaughter of Waightstill Avery, the plantation owner, knew of Tamishan. She shared some of his ability 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.
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 smaller 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. 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 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 good friend of mine, Sandy West, has been working on preserving historical documents at the Morganton History Museum. She 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, the reporter who followed up with me asked me if there was any evidence. At that time I knew have 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 the Appalachians serves as a reminder for me. The painting of him that still hangs in the library in Morganton brings me joy every time I see it: my quest answered with great inspiration.
Tamishan’s 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.” The African American community in Burke County knew well of noble prince who was mentioned by a third party in a newspaper.
Many have taken on a great responsibility to educate their offspring. 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, thanks is due to the Most High.
Please forgive any errors made for they are mine. The original can be found here: www.enquirer.com/editions/1999/02/11/loc_up_from_slavery.html