By Vincent Fraley
The oft-overlooked experiences of the Lowcountry’s African Muslims are the subject of a new digital exhibit now freely available online.
The exhibit—formally styled Enslaved and Freed African Muslims: Spiritual Wayfarers in the South and Lowcountry—documents more than three centuries of West African Muslims, from those forcibly brought to the Americas before the War of Independence to adherents of Islam in the Lowcountry today.
A spotlight on these communities is overdue. Muslims from across the world have long played an influential and productive role in American history and culture, contributing skills and knowledge as well as spiritual and cultural traditions. Yet many of their accounts disappeared from the historical record, as is often the case with enslaved peoples in American history.
A number of prominent African Muslims, however, are documented through personal notes, unpublished autobiographies, memoirs, newspaper articles, and public records. The exhibit pulls together these materials and more, spanning fugitive slave notices to files of the Works Progress Administration Federal Writers’ Project.
“Surviving historical records do not contain many of the enslaved and freed Muslims experiences; but they do make it abundantly clear that Muslims have been in America since its inception and have participated in a peaceful and pragmatic form of Islam that influenced enslaved peoples’ cultures,” writes the exhibit’s curator Muhammad Fraser-Rahim, an assistant professor at The Citadel and the executive director (North America) of Quilliam International.
“In both Savannah and Charleston, the oldest Muslim communities themselves are descendants of these enslaved African Muslims who to this day continue to encourage their ancestral legacy of survival, tolerance, and coexistence within American society.”
The exhibit is produced by the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative (LDHI), an award-winning digital public history project hosted by the Lowcountry Digital Library at the College. It is made possible with curatorial assistance by Ashley Hollinshead and Colby Causey, graduate assistants in the College of Charleston-Citadel Graduate History M.A. program. The exhibit marks LDHI’s first focus on the region’s Muslim communities, reflecting the initiative’s inclusive approach to public history and its commitment to highlighting underrepresented race, class, gender, and labor histories.
“Many of us would not have thought of Muslims having a presence in Colonial America. Yet approximately 30% of enslaved people brought to America were from Muslims regions of West Africa,” said Leah Worthington, co-director of LDHI. “This exhibit is so important and exciting because it widens our understanding of the history of slavery and enslaved people in the U.S. And it also provides a rich historical context that will broaden some of the present-day narrow understandings of Islam in America.”
Enslaved and Freed African Muslims: Spiritual Wayfarers in the South and Lowcountry, along with more than two dozen digital exhibits, is freely available at ldhi.library.cofc.edu. To browse 100,000-plus images of the Lowcountry Digital Library, visit lcdl.library.cofc.edu.