The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


The Shaking Quakers

An image of "The Ritual Dance of the Shakers," Shaker Historical Society. Source: Wikimedia Commons

“The Ritual Dance of the Shakers,” Shaker Historical Society. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The “United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing,” more commonly known as the Shakers, were founded in the late 1700s. Although scholars disagree on their status as a utopia, the Shakers have created a unique community with wide ranging and long lasting impacts.


Led by Mother Ann Lee, the first Shaker settlement was purchased in Albany, New York in 1776. Due to the Shaker’s roots in Quakerism and their penchant for religious dances, Albany locals called their new neighbors “the Shaking Quakers.”

See a recreation of Shaker worship and dancing by the Hancock Shaker Village

The religious ideals in Shaker settlements involved a life of celibacy, commitment to communal living, equality of the sexes, and promotion of pacifism. According to Starlyn D’Angelo, the Executive Director of The Shaker Heritage Society of Albany, New York, “The Shakers were interested in devoting themselves to a life of work and worship. Their communal, celibate lifestyle was an attempt to emulate Jesus Christ but it also allowed them to devote themselves to work and worship.”

Today, the Shaker ideals and lifestyle live on in the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village of Maine. Here, four individuals—Brother Arnold Hadd, Sister Frances Carr, Sister June Carpenter, and Brother Brian Burke—practice Shaker traditions and accept new recruits. Brother Arnold Hadd has shared his insights on their community of faith. “We like to call them the three C’s, which are celibacy in imitation of the life of Christ. Community of goods because that’s how Christ and the apostles lived,” Hadd notes, “and then third is gateway into the church which is the confession of sin or opening of the mind.”

Hear more about the Sabbathday Lake Shakers and more from Brother Hadd 

Historians including Donald Pitzer and Erik Seeman suggest that late eighteenth and nineteenth-century Shaker Society had utopian qualities. According to Pitzer, the Shakers were a utopian society in a “Christian millennialist sense.”Specifically, Shakers believed that Mother Ann Lee represented the second appearing of Christ. Shakers believed that she would usher in the biblical kingdom of God on earth, and create a Christian utopia.

Erik Seeman adds that nineteenth-century Shaker society was, like other utopias, secluded and isolated.“Because Shakers were willing to live apart from non-Shakers, they were more successful than most groups in creating utopian communities,” Seeman writes.

Today, Shakers caution people against making generalizations about their faith as a utopian society. They hope that the public won’t make conclusions about Shaker society based on limited or erroneous information.  For instance, practicing Shakers in the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village don’t see their community as “perfect” or “idealistic.” They also don’t  believe that Mother Ann Lee created a utopian society of God on earth. Instead, they believe that Lee gave them the tools to strive towards perfection in their everyday lives, work and worship.

An image of "Life of the Diligent Shaker," Shaker Historical Society. Source: Wikimedia Commons

“Life of the Diligent Shaker,” Shaker Historical Society. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Michael S. Graham, director of the United Society of Shakers, explains, “The Shakers do not feel that they are a Utopian Society.  They make a big distinction between ‘attaining perfection’ and ‘striving toward perfection.’  The former is a theoretical stopping point (it has been achieved); the latter is a process, and, in fact a goal that is never reached.”

Shaker society’s  cultural impact goes much further than investigations of  their utopian tendencies.

According to Phoebe Bender, former President of Shaker Heritage Society of Albany, New York, the Shakers invented the flat broom, labels for packaging seeds, the circular saw, canned foods, and nail clippers. “They always felt if there is a better way to do something, you should do it,” Bender says, “They aimed toward efficiency. They were innovative and yet if they did it, it must be done right.”

Shakers also contributed to agricultural innovations. Starlyn D’Angelo, the current Executive Director of the Shaker Heritage Society of Albany New York, notes that “non-Shakers often sought out Shaker expertise related to farming and dairy operations. In fact, Gail Borden worked with the Shakers to develop condensed milk. This was important at a time when tainted milk was killing many people and when soldiers needed food products that could be transported easily.”

An image of "The Shakers Harvesting Their Famous Herbs," Shaker Historical Society. Source: Wikimedia Commons

“The Shakers Harvesting Their Famous Herbs,” Shaker Historical Society. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Shakers also proved noteworthy humanitarians and vocal pacifists. During the Civil War, the Shakers cared for Union and Confederate soldiers alike. They practiced non-violence and promoted peace in their communities and were especially outspoken during the Civil War and Russo Japanese War (1904-5). As Pitzer explains, “the Shakers held a peace conference to protest the Russo-Japanese War.  Resolutions they sent to President Theodore stated unequivocally that ‘all wars are equally barbarous and equally unnecessary, their desolating cruelty effecting nothing for the cause of justice or human liberty, and to be regarded only as a return to primitive savagery.”

The Shakers were committed to creating a society that was equal for all, regardless of gender or race. According to Bender, it “can’t be overemphasized that the Shakers were led by a woman.” The Shaker faith informed this commitment to gender equality. As D’Angelo explains, “Shakers believed that God was both male and female in character so, men and women shared power in Shaker communities.” Beyond their isolated communities, the Shakers made history when the New York State Legislature granted the first divorce to a woman whose husband became a Shaker. This case jumpstarted the movement to legalize women’s right to divorce.

While the Shaker vow of celibacy threatened their society’s future, Shakers sustained their numbers by welcoming orphans, widows, the homeless, and struggling families into their ranks. In this respect, they provided critical social services for the broader community. However, when government began implementing state-sponsored social services after the Civil War, the population of the Shaker society began to dwindle.

Still, believers continue to practice the Shaker faith, carrying on their traditions and welcoming visitors to their worship.


Learn more about the history of the Shakers by reading “A Short History of Watervliet.”

Media Contact:

Diana Williams
BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist


The Klan and The Catholics

A photo of Al Smith and his wife Catherine, dated ca. 1915-1920. Source: Library of Congress

Al Smith and his wife Catherine, dated ca. 1915-1920. Source: Library of Congress



Alfred E. Smith was the first American Catholic to run for presidential office when he secured the Democratic nomination in 1928. A strong opponent of prohibition, Smith doubted that it could be effectively enforced and feared it might lead to an erosion of faith in the rule of law. As a result, he advocated for the law’s repeal. But many Americans supported it and in addition to his Irish heritage, New York background, and Catholic faith, many voters found him off-putting. Smith ended up losing–badly–to Herbert Hoover, who took 58.2 percent of the vote and all but 8 of the 48 states. Most painful of all for Smith, however, was the discovery that his home state of New York hadn’t voted in his favor.

The cultural context of the 1928 election helps us understand why Smith lost so badly. Rewind to 1924, when the Ku Klux Klan was at its height in American politics. The Klan perceived the waves of new immigrants from predominantly-Catholic countries like Ireland and Italy as a “threat” to their vision of America as an Anglo-Protestant nation. As a result, the Democratic Party had two distinct groups at their nominating convention in 1924: the “rural wing” led by KKK-endorsed William Gibbs McAdoo, and the new, immigrant, “urban wing” led by Al Smith. These sides clashed head-on at the convention, but the party ended up with the dark-horse candidate, John W. Davis, who promptly lost to Calvin Coolidge.

Robert A. Slayton, a professor of American history at Chapman University and author of Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith, characterizes 1920s America as a country caught in a cultural civil war between “small-town and big-city America.” Part of this culture war was the 18th Amendment, which banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages. Ratified in 1919, it was the culmination of decades of work by activists in what is now known as the Third Wave of the Temperance movement.

Groups like the Anti-Saloon League, which drew support from Protestant denominations, claimed that consumption of alcohol led to moral corruption, criminal behavior, and domestic violence. But is was more than that – for many, the stance on Prohibition was tied to cultural, religious, and domestic identity. Many Protestant Americans thought of Catholic immigrants, who congregated in cities and had a less rigid relationship to alcohol, as cultural and religious ‘others.’ They quickly became targets of the temperance movement.

A picture of Al Smith (no date recorded). Source: Library of Congress

Al Smith (no date recorded). Source: Library of Congress

Smith was born to an Irish-American mother and a father of German and Italian descent in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1873. Smith’s father died when he was young, which forced him to drop out of school in the 7th grade. He worked at the Fulton fish market to help support his family. Despite his lack of formal education, Smith established a connection with the New York Democratic political organization, Tammany Hall.

Since the early-19th century, Tammany Hall had been a champion of immigrant rights in New York City. They also had a reputation as a kind of “social integrator” for ethnic minorities in the community. Smith’s political career began in 1895 when Tammany Hall appointed him as an investigator in the office of the city commissioner of jurors.

In 1928, all Smith’s opponents talked about was his Catholic faith. “Fliers informed voters that if Smith took the White House, all Protestant marriages would be annulled,” Richard Slayton told BackStory, “Their offspring rendered illegitimate on the spot.” Cartoons were also published depicting the recently-completed Holland Tunnel as a “secret passage” to transport the pope from Rome to his new abode: the White House.

Many of Smith’s supporters were shocked at how vehement the anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant movement actually was — and how much this sentiment influenced the presidential politics in an allegedly secular state. Worst of all, Slayton noted, is the sad truth that such opposition was rarely based in fact. There was no evidence that Catholicism dictated Smith’s politics.

Nearly a century after Al Smith’s defeat, present-day America remains haunted by similar biases. Widespread discussion of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism and Rep. Keith Ellison’s Muslim faith are recent examples that voters still worry about a candidate’s religion.


Library of Congress – Prohibition: A Case Study of Progressive Reform – Al Smith Biography

C-SPAN: “Empire Statesman”

New York Times Blogs: “When A Catholic Terrified the Heartland”

The George Washington University – Teaching Eleanor Roosevelt Glossary: Tammany Hall

SUNY at Albany: “‘Boss Tweed’ and the Tammany Hall Machine”

Learn more about the history of American presidents and spirituality by listening to BackStory’s episode, “Believer-In-Chief

Media Contact:

Diana Williams
BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist

A Chapel On Mr. Jefferson’s Grounds


An image of the University of Virginia Chapel, July 2, 1912. Source: Holsinger Collection, UVA Special Collections Library

University of Virginia Chapel, July 2, 1912. Source: Holsinger Collection, UVA Special Collections Library

Unlike all other nineteenth century institutions of higher education—like Harvard, William & Mary, and Yale—the University of Virginia was founded without a designated religious affiliation. Although Thomas Jefferson envisioned an academic village in which students enjoyed religious freedom, UVA was not a truly secular institution. According to UVA professor, Alan Taylor, “He [Thomas Jefferson] did not want any one denomination to obtain ascendency or even for several to contest for primacy.” Rather, UVA was truly trans-denominational, not non-religious, and the establishment of the University chapel exemplified Jefferson’s vision of free worship on campus. From the words of Jefferson himself:

“In conformity with the principles of our constitution which places all sects of religion on an equal footing – with the jealousies of the different sects in guarding that equality from encroachment and surprise, and with the sentiments of the legislature in favor of freedom of religion manifested on former occasions [as in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom] – we have proposed no Professor of Divinity.”

Despite the absence of a Professor of Divinity, religious services were held every Sunday. Alexander G. “Sandy” Gilliam Jr, University Protocol and History Officer, claims “Jefferson decreed that religious services be held on Sundays, the difference in UVA was that attendance wasn’t required.” The very epicenter of Jefferson’s academic village—The Rotunda—could accommodate religious worship. According to UVA’s meeting minutes of Oct. 4, 1824, “One of it’s [the Rotunda] large elliptical rooms on it’s middle floor shall be used for annual examinations, for lectures to such schools as are too numerous for their ordinary schoolrooms, and for religious worship, under the regulations allowed to be prescribed by law.” Jefferson served as UVA’s rector during this period of time. 

When the wave of the Second Great Awakening—a religious revival of the 1840s—rippled through Virginia, attention was drawn to the lack of a chapel at UVA. Astounded and outraged by this unfortunate deficiency, an organization comprised of faculty wives initiated the process by raising funds and drawing plans for UVA’s chapel. According to Gilliam, the original plans “stuck” the chapel “…in the middle of the lawn about half way down.” Obviously, these plans changed.

An image of the University of Virginia Chapel, March 16, 1914. Source: Holsinger Collection, UVA Special Collections Library

University of Virginia Chapel, March 16, 1914. Source: Holsinger Collection, UVA Special Collections Library

Though the Civil War prolonged construction and jeopardized the funds, Gilliam said the cornerstone of UVA’s Chapel was laid in 1885 under the supervision of Chaplin Otis Glazebrook. Construction was slow, but the Chapel was completed approximately ten years later.

The architectural style of the Chapel stands out against the Jeffersonian style seen throughout Grounds.  According to Gilliam, the Chapel’s gothic style is indicative of the architectural tastes of the mid-1800s. While the Greek Revivalist architecture was considered vaguely Pagan, Gothic architecture was the preferred style for churches.

Gilliam noted that the last University Chaplin died in 1895, the same year the UVA Chapel started withdrawing from religious affiliation. The many outside preachers who commuted to hold services in the structure eventually stopped as well.

Today, the Chapel is regularly used for a variety of things including weddings, funerals and student organization events. High in demand, the University of Virginia Chapel continues to uphold Jefferson’s vision of a unique academic village. When asked whether the chapel coincides with Jefferson’s beliefs regarding religious freedom, Jamal Millner, CLAS ‘93 alumnus responded, “From my understanding of Jefferson as an individual, no. But as a statesmen, yes, the chapel was an interdenominational space that supported ideals of religious freedom.”

Some may deem the chapel a divergence from Jefferson’s ideals and intentions for the academic village of UVA, pointing to its past limitation to Protestant religions and even its gothic architecture. University of Virginia Professor, Emeritus, and Historical scholar, Peter Onuf points out in a Coursera lecture “the architecture, the sensibility, the taste itself would be revolting to Jefferson.” Considering the location of the chapel, positioned beside the Rotunda, Onuf goes on, “Jefferson would say, as he turns over in his grave, ‘Oh my God.’”

Despite opposing positions, this hallmark of University Grounds sustains the Jeffersonian model and advances our capacity for religious freedoms.

“The relations which exist between man and his Maker – and the duties resulting from those relations – are the most interesting and important to every human being and the most incumbent on his study and investigation.” ~ Thomas Jefferson

Learn more about the history of American presidents and spirituality by listening to BackStory‘s episode, “Believer-In-Chief.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Nov. 3, 2016. A paragraph about UVA students raising funds for the first chaplain’s salary was removed. The quote from the UVA meeting minutes was corrected and attribution of that quote was changed from Thomas Jefferson (because it is not apparent in the document that it was said by Jefferson). Finally, additional attribution was made to primary source Alexander “Sandy” Gilliam to further clarify that statements about construction of the chapel and the death of the last University Chaplin came directly from Gilliam.

‘Kissed By Hearst’

By Andrew Parsons

Odds are most Americans born after World War II have heard of Billy Graham. The 96-year-old preacher has met with every president in the postwar period. He made a positive mark on the Civil Rights movement and hosted religious revivals across the world to crowds that numbered in the millions.

But of course, it wasn’t always this way. Once, he was a traveling revival preacher with an audience only  as big as his tent. So, how did it get to this point? How did one preacher become so influential?

Billy Graham in September, 1949 during the Los Angeles Revival. Source: L.A. Times

Billy Graham in September, 1949 during the Los Angeles Revival. Source: L.A. Times

Duke University historian Grant Wacker, says Graham’s rise to stardom was fast, not a slow boil. “In the 1940s when Graham came into the scene there were dozens of conspicuous revivalists. And by 1950 there was no competition.”

He says this sea change can be pinpointed to one particular event in the fall of 1949. That’s when Billy Graham, this itinerant preacher from North Carolina who had been holding revival meetings all around the country, pitched his tent in Los Angeles.

The revival was supposed to last just three weeks, and at first it seemed like it would be. “In the beginning, the crusade did not fare well,” says Wacker. “The attendance was mediocre. Graham and his associates became discouraged.”

Like any good preacher, Graham prayed for something to happen. Hoping for divine intervention, he kept his tent pitched for one more week.

The fourth week, Graham walked into his tent to find a sea of journalists. “Reporters started writing down his comments and he was astonished. He was a very young man at this point, he was a man in his early 30s,” says Wacker. “Bulbs are popping and these reporters are taking notes. And he asked naturally, what’s happened here. ‘why are you writing down everything I’m saying?’ And one of the reporters said to him: ‘You have been kissed by William Randolph Hearst.’”

Hearst was the owner of a newspaper empire, and all-around media mogul. He had apparently told his reporters to start writing articles about Graham’s L.A. gathering.

“And almost immediately the Los Angeles Times, which Hearst did not own picked it up – the story. In a few days Time magazine picked it up, then LIFE Magazine,” Wacker says. The story even reached audiences in Europe and Asia.

All this press attention attracted scores of gawkers, many of whom came out of pure curiosity. But the crowds continued to build. Wacker describes it as a sort of truck stop mentality. “If there are a lot of cars parked outside, a lot of trucks – this must be good. The press presented this as a landmark in the history of American revivalism.”

Soon a space that could seat 3,000 was expanded to accommodate 9,000. On one occasion, it was estimated that another 15,000 people stood outside listening.

And what of the man at the center of all this attention? Well, the content of Graham’s sermons wasn’t very different from what many others preached at the time. It hit all of the familiar notes of revival preaching — troubles of the world, personal issues, salvation.

What set Graham apart was his presence. And his delivery. He was tall, handsome, and commanding. His voice boomed at a lightning clip. Wacker says that stenographers clocked his preaching at 240 words a minute.

“He did that deliberately because he thought that successful newscasters spoke very very rapidly. He was animated. He paced the platform and one account he often paced a full mile in the course of the sermon. And then the gestures. A flurry of gestures with his fists, hitting into the plumb of his hand, fingers stabbing outward, the crouching of the knees.” One reporter even wrote that he had the energy of a coiled panther.

His sermons were also peppered with appearances from figures — sure to play well in glitzy L.A. Radio personalities, actresses and athletes appeared to testify to the power of Graham’s message. And this was also conscious, says Wacker. “The word of the satisfied customer to put it in marketing terms. And he understood that this was more powerful than technical theological apologetic.”

All this gave the press yet another story to tell. Newspapers across the country, and around the world, were fascinated by the fascination with Graham.

The revival was originally slotted for a three-week run, but it lasted for two months. By the end of November 1949, Graham was an international commodity.

This story of Billy Graham’s lightning fame at the hands of William Randolph Hearst has become something of a legend. It’s been told time and again in Graham’s circles. But to Wacker it does leave one thing unanswered.

“So the question is why? Why did Hearst give him this attention? Hearst was not known to be a particularly religious man and he was not known to be an evangelical figure like Graham.” The truth, he says, is that no one really knows why Hearst turned his attention to Billy Graham.

But nothing in American history happens in a vacuum. Wacker thinks all the attention was actually a response to bigger, international forces.

“Two days before the revival started, the Soviets had successfully exploded an atomic bomb and Harry Truman announced this. And by all accounts people were frightened to know that this nation possessed nuclear weapons and could inflict terrible damage upon Americans.”

About a week later, communists, led by Mao Zedong, toppled the Chinese government. These were both themes that Graham pounded in his eight week revival.

In sermon titled, “What’s Wrong with the World?” he shouted about weapons the Soviets were developing and their shadowy networks. “We’re told today about death rays as far as the light can penetrate it will burn everything under the penetrating ray of that light. And we’re told that there are more subversive forces in Los Angeles than any city in America. Your own mayor told me that just the other day in his office. And I’ll tell you, if there was ever an hour that Los Angeles needs to come to its knees before God it’s the crisis now in which we live in.”

Hearst was a smart newsman. He no doubt recognized the value of a really good story. A story about frightening times, the individual sitting in that tent, and of course, God.

It’s a story that has always been a part of Billy Graham’s sermons. But Los Angeles 1949 was a moment where that story was particularly compelling.

And Graham was talented enough to ride that wave.

Listen to our whole show, Born Again: Religious Renewal in America. To read more about Billy Graham’s influential life, read Grant Wacker’s America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation.

Keys to the Kingdom

By Andrew Parsons

American Moslem Women’s Society, 1952.  (Source, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan)

American Moslem Women’s Society, 1952. (Source, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan)

One Friday in 1976, a group of men broke into the Dix mosque in Dearborn, Michigan. They weren’t vandals or thieves. In fact, these men were there to pray.

The men, recent immigrants from Yemen and Palestine, were as shocked to find the mosque closed on a Friday as a devout Christian might be to find a church closed on a Sunday morning. The mosque’s regular members, long in America, found nothing unusual about being at work during the day on Friday, and keeping the mosque locked until they came in to worship on Sundays, like their Christian neighbors.  The break-in highlighted the great difference between the two groups, and became the opening salvo in a struggle to control not only the building, but how Islam would be practiced in Dearborn.

The mosque was one of just a few in the area. It had been built in the 1930s by Lebanese immigrants who came to work at the local Ford Factory. Like many Muslim communities in Michigan, the Dix congregation had developed a distinctly American religious practice that was very different from the Islam practiced in conservative countries such as Yemen.

Scholar Nabeel Abraham has studied this conflict.  He also grew up going to the Dix mosque in the 1950s and 60s. He told BackStory that the mosque functioned a lot like a Protestant church. Unlike many mosques in the Middle East, the basement of the Dix mosque was a place for the community to mingle outside of prayer. It held Sunday school classes for young Muslims, weddings, funerals, and social events where men and women both danced. Some of his fondest childhood memories were of the weddings on his father’s side of the family.

“There would be a fellow with a sword. That always caught my attention. There’s a sword, it comes out of nowhere and doing a Zorba the Greek dance. There would be a lot of sweat and moving and gyrating.”

The mosque also supported an influential women’s auxiliary group, the American Muslim Women’s Society. Looking at pictures of the group from the 1950s, it would be easy to mistake them for a group of Christian housewives, gathered outside their church. They dressed as many American women did in the ’50s: short sleeved blouses, cardigans; skirts that showed leg below the knee. They didn’t cover their hair, except in prayer. At Dix, the AMW was also heavily involved in setting mosque policy, and teaching Arabic to young members.

Abraham says all this added up to was complete culture shock for Yemenis and Palestinians. They were coming from a part of the world that was becoming more fundamentalist in the 1970s.

“The new immigrants were looking at the whole picture and saying ‘this is not authentic. In the old country where we just came from, mosques didn’t look like this. They were open on Fridays, a lot of men there praying. And what’s with the women running around without headscarves, what’s with them raising their voicing and dictating policy or attempting to? What’s with these parties going on in the basement?'”

The immigrants used the elections for the board of directors to take the reins of the Dix mosque. They brought in an imam from Yemen, segregated the men and women and institute strict polices on dress code and conduct.

It was a radical break from the more relaxed, Americanized form of Islam Dix’s original members practiced. Within a few years, many of the mosque’s original congregation left, and started a new Islamic center just down the road.

It’s tempting to read this story as a cautionary tale about fundamentalist Islam encroaching on a moderate congregation. But Nabeel Abraham notes that religious landscape you see in Dearborn of today doesn’t bear that out. There’s not just have a handful of mosques, like there were in the ’70s, but a wide diversity of practice. Plus, the town has become a focal point of Arab-American culture in Michigan and the nation. Halal restaurants, social clubs, and other cultural venues offer less charged places for people to meet and mingle, says Abraham.

“Muslims and Islam are part of the norm. And people who don’t agree with the philosophical line can go to another mosque.”

Really, the story of the Dix mosque looks like very similar to the ways different sects of Christianity have feuded and then co-existed throughout American history, he says.

“It’s part of that trend. It is the Americanization of Islam in America. They’re following the same steps of the Christian churches and you can probably add, the Judaic institutions.”

Hear Nabeel Abraham tell BackStory host Brian Balogh about the history of the Dix mosque, on our episode about Islam and America. You can also read about it in the sister books he wrote for and co-edited,  Arab Detroit: From Margin to Mainstream and Arab Detroit 9/11: Life in the Terror Decade. Finally, you have to check out scholar Sally Howell’s amazingly comprehensive new book about the history of Muslims in Detroit, Old Islam in Detroit: Rediscovering the Muslim American Past. It also includes the story of the Dix mosque and so much more.  

The Writing on the Wall

A photograph of Omar ibn Said, likely taken in the 1850s.

A photograph of Omar ibn Said, taken some time before the Civil War, and after his autobiography was published.

Around 1810, a man began writing in a mysterious script on the walls of his jail cell in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Fascinated onlookers soon came to marvel, and to guess what the symbols meant. Eventually, someone identified the language as Arabic, and the man as an escaped slave named Omar ibn Said.

Omar, who had been an Islamic scholar in West Africa before he was captured and enslaved, was returned to slavery after his imprisonment in the Fayetteville jail. He was sold to a prominent North Carolina family, the Owens, and ostensibly converted to Christianity. In the years following his sale to the prominent Owens family, his fame as a literate slave — and literate in Arabic, no less — grew. Omar remained a slave. But, most unusually, he was also allowed to write and publish an account of his life. The Life of Omar Ibn Said, Written by Himself was published in 1831, decades after his capture in West Africa.

“You asked me to write my life…I have much forgotten my own, as well as the Arabic language. Neither can I write very grammatically or according to the true idiom. And so, my brother, I beg you, in God’s name, not to blame me, for I am a man of weak eyes, and of a weak body.”

For our guest Ala Alryyes, the mere fact that such a narrative exists is remarkable:

“This is the only extant autobiography written in Arabic by a Muslim American slave. Through it we have access to both his original world that is the world he came from – West Africa – and an attempt to negotiate his situation in the U.S. as a slave.”

But Alryyes says that what you see in that document isn’t necessarily what it seems, either when it comes to religion or to his feelings about being owned. For example, Said opens his autobiography with a chapter, or sura, from the Koran. Its central idea is that God exercises power over, and is the supreme owner of, all things and persons.

Omar ibn Said's original manuscript

The sura which opens the text. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“Opening your slave narrative, as it were, with a text that says that God is the only one who has ownership of all things seems to be it couldn’t just be an accidental or negligible feature of his autobiography but a choice that has an organic connection to his possession as a slave, right? In other words, he’s using the the sura to negate the idea that one man can own another man.”

Omar continues his autobiography by describing how he was taken from the region of current day Senegal all the way to the great sea, put on a great ship, and “sold into the hands of the Christians.”

“My name is Omar ibn Seid. My birthplace was Fut Tûr, between the two rivers. I sought knowledge under the instruction of a Sheikh called Mohammed Seid, my own brother, and Sheikh Soleiman Kembeh, and Sheikh Gabriel Abdal. I continued my studies twenty-five years. Then there came to our place a large army, who killed many men, and took me, and brought me to the great sea, and sold me into the hands of the Christians, who bound me and sent me on board a great ship and we sailed upon the great sea a month and a half, when we came to a place called Charleston in the Christian language.”


He goes on to describe his life as a slave, first with a brutal master named Johnson, “a complete infidel, who had no fear of God at all.” Because Omar was still enslaved when he composed his narrative, it’s perhaps not too surprising that his account of life with his then-masters the Owenses isn’t so critical. Nor does he seem unhappy about his public conversion to Christianity.

Though Omar’s story is unique, as a Muslim in a strange land, he was far from alone. As many as 15 percent — maybe more — of the half million African slaves brought to what became the U.S. were Muslim. But within a generation or two, the memory and practice of Islam had largely faded away in America. And that, says Alryyes, is what makes this unique document so important.

“Omar’s autobiography is not the full story. But it is a clear example of the fact that Islam and America did not just meet on Sept. 11, 2001. And that they had a lengthy, complex and more interesting relationship than that.”

This is a story from our show on the history of Islam & the United States. You can listen to the whole episode here. If you’d like to know more about Omar ibn Said’s story, you can read a translation of his autobiography here.


Riots and Religion at Mr. Jefferson’s University

College students today might have a reputation for wild parties and late-night carousing. But, as most college professors will tell you, in class, apart from the odd student checking Facebook or Twitter, today’s college students tend to be a fairly well-behaved bunch.

Things were a wee bit different during the early years of the University of Virginia, according to Carlos Santos, a journalist who’s written about this era in the university’s history:

An artistic rendering of a University student by Porte Crayon, 1853 Credit: UVA Special Collections Library.

An artistic rendering of a University student by Porte Crayon, 1853.
Credit: UVA Special Collections Library.


“The slightest insult– a mean look– that was enough to set them off. They had hair trigger tempers, and they would bite each other, they’d fight, they’d hit each other with fists, rocks, sticks. They would use knives, they would shoot at each other. Luckily, weapons were so primitive they rarely hit each other.”

They weren’t primitive enough to prevent tragedy, though, says Santos. “The violence actually culminated in the murder in 1840 of John Davis, who was a professor of law.”
It was hardly the kind of intellectual paradise Thomas Jefferson envisioned when he founded the school in 1819. Jefferson pictured an ideal “academical village;” a place where pursuits of the mind were paramount. To be fair, collegiate violence wasn’t by any means unique to his new academic endeavor: even Harvard had to endure the antics of unruly students, including the 1807 “Rotten Cabbage Rebellion” over the quality of dining hall food. But the students’ behavior posed a real threat to the existence of Mr. Jefferson’s university.* The school, which Jefferson had created to be an academic haven outside the influence of organized religion, already had many detractors, and its reputation for violence only intensified criticism. Santos again:

“This was in an era when the law had just been pushed off the books where it was a crime to not believe in the holy trinity. And so for Jefferson to start a school that had no religious affiliation was anathema to many people, especially in Virginia. So they began to criticize the school when they saw all this violence, a murder of a professor. They wanted it shuttered.”

Jefferson at one point was brought to tears by the violence; he knew full well that it was something that could threaten the future of the university. So, Jefferson, other administrators, and the universities’ professors tried everything they could to control the problem. They instituted an “early morning rising law” to try to keep students from staying out all night, and a strict dress code to make the students at least look more orderly, or if not that, make them easily identifiable when they were causing trouble in town.

Nothing worked. Nothing, that is, until the effects of the Second Great Awakening made it to the campus. This revival of serious Christianity, which swept across America in the early 19th century, changed the atmosphere at UVA and beyond, tempering the culture of honor and violence with piety and lawfulness.

Jefferson’s university had finally gotten the kinds of students it needed to fulfill Jefferson’s dream for an academical village, but with them came the one thing Jefferson had been determined to keep out: the church.

Listen to our segment on UVA’s violent early history, or to our entire episode on higher education in America. And you can read Carlos Santos’ article on early UVA students here.

*Note: For those readers not blessed by fortune to live in Charlottesville or attend the University of Virginia, you’ll now know that as a sign of respect and affection, the founder of the school is often referred to locally as “Mr. Jefferson.”