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Omar ibn Said, b. 1770?

Source: From DICTIONARY OF NORTH CAROLINA BIOGRAPHY edited by William S. Powell. Copyright (c) 1979-1996 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.

Omar Ibn Said (1770-1864), a slave and Arabic scholar, was born in Futa Toro (now a part of the Republic of Senegal) of an aristocratic Moslem family. Educated in Koranic schools, he was a teacher and tradesman for about fifteen years and purportedly made a pilgrimage to Mecca during the period 1790-1805. In 1807 he was found guilty of an unspecified crime and sold by his people, the Fulas, to an American slave trader. Taken to Charleston, S.C., Omar was among the last Africans to reach the United States prior to the outlawing of the overseas slave trade at the end of 1807. After working for two years as a slave in Charleston and on a South Carolina rice plantation, he escaped in 1810 and made his way to Fayetteville, N.C., near which he was recaptured. When efforts to find his legal owner proved unavailing, he became the property of General James Owen of Bladen County. At Owen's Cape Fear River estate called Milton, Omar was taught English and converted to the Christian religion, joining the First Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville in 1820.

The Owen family, intrigued by Omar's facility with Arabic and his scholarly bent, gave him little work and permitted him ample time to study an Arabic translation of the Bible that was procured for him by General Owen. Occasional spates of journalistic interest, fanned by false reports that Omar was the son of an African king, circulated his name and circumstances widely during the antebellum era. In 1836 he moved with the Owen family to Wilmington, where he was active in the Presbyterian congregation and host to many visitors anxious to witness his unusual ability to read and write in Arabic. There are reports that he accompanied his owners to resort springs in the South and there entertained children with folk stories. An added source of public interest in the 1850s was Omar's advanced age.

During the Civil War the Owen family moved to Owen Hill, a Cape Fear farm formerly the home of General Owen's brother, Governor John Owen, where Omar died at age ninety-four. Much of the information about him is contained in a brief autobiography in Arabic that he composed in 1831. He appears to have been the only formally educated African among the slave population of North Carolina. The North Carolina Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a paper with Arabic writing by Said as well as a daguerreotype of him.

SEE: Fayetteville, North Carolina Presbyterian, 23 July 1859; J. F. Jameson, "Autobiography of Omar ibn Said, Slave in North Carolina," American Historical Review 30 (July 1925); Philadelphia, Christian Advocate, July 1825; J. L. Wilson, Western Africa: Its History, Condition, and Prospects (1856).

Thomas Parramore

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