Washington D.C.’s National Mall is the home of many of the city’s finest museums, housing works of the masters at the National Gallery of Art, historic aircraft at the Air and Space Museum and America’s Native heritage at the Museum of the American Indian .
But one man saw that something was missing: Amir Muhammad couldn’t find a museum that showed Islam’s history in America. So he started digging. His results – including photos, artifacts, and displays – have become America’s Islamic Heritage Museum and Cultural Center in Southeast Washington, DC.
A native of Connecticut, Amir Muhammad was raised Baptist. His first experience with Islam was in 1973, under the former Nation of Islam leader Elijah P. Muhammad. He also studied the writings of the late Malcolm X.
But it was some genealogical research that transformed his faith: he found Muslim names in his family tree. He began to search libraries and town records. He talked to his mother, who gave him vital family information. He began to visit Georgia, where his mother was from, trying to get any information he could find.
His search became more focused when he moved from Richmond, Virginia to Washington, DC.
“I felt that if I was living in the DC area, with the National Archives here, if I ever moved, I would feel bad that I didn’t take advantage of it,” said Muhammad.
Through his research, Muhammad came across several Muslim names especially amongst the Gullah people in the lowlands of South Carolina and Georgia. He found stories of Muslim slave managers who helped defend the Sea Islands of South Carolina during the War of 1812. He found several tombstones with Muslim names, sometimes having to go deep into the woods – and into areas where he did not feel welcome – to find them.
Digging in Earnest
He also found tombstones with the one-finger bas relief, a Muslim symbol meant to signify the oneness of God. He explored the ruins of Gullah slave quarters – called “Tabby Ruins” – and found modern people who carry on the Gullah traditions – like weaving intricate baskets from sea grass.
Muhammad came across Muslim Africans who fought in the Civil War, including Muhammad Ali Ibn Said, who spoke seven languages, fought for the Union in the 55th Massachusetts Regiment and later became a teacher. He found Muslims like Hadji Ali, an Ottoman of Jordanian parents known as “Hi Jolly” who was one of the first camel drivers ever hired by the U.S. Army for its experimental Camel Corps.
Amir Muhammad’s search continued through census records, where he found Muslim names in several documents. His search also led him to sports heroes like Muhammad Ali. He found Muslim educators, scholars, judges, lawyers, doctors, businessmen and members of the U.S. military – some of whom were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Amir says American Muslims need to know their history to feel part of the country. “Another thing we talk about is the forgotten roots, because it’s something that’s forgotten,” he said. “People don’t understand that it’s the roots and the core of America,” said Muhammad.
His research was first displayed in 1996 as a traveling exhibit by a non-profit organization called the “Collections and Stories of American Muslims,” or CSAM.
Muhammad and his wife Habeebah – a PhD and Registrar at the Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture – took the exhibit to several countries. In Qatar, it was featured in the State Department’s cultural exchange program.
The exhibit also traveled to Nigeria, and made stops in Abuja, Abeokuta, and Kano, where Muhammad personally led tours through the exhibit for visiting dignitaries.
This year, the Exhibit found a home at the former Clara Muhammad School on Martin Luther King Avenue in Washington’s Anacostia neighborhood. A former carriage and paint shop, the building was upgraded to a school and then revamped to accommodate the museum.
The development and cost of the current space was more than $40,000. The cost for keeping the museum open for the first year is expected to be around $150,000. The facility also hosted four iftars this year – including one sponsored by the Ambassador of the Embassy of Qatar.
Amir Muhammad’s eyes light up when he talks about his work. He calls finding Muslims in American history “like a blessing from God.” But he added that his hope is to one day to join other museums in a prominent place on the Washington Mall.
David Byrd is a journalist, writer, video editor and photographer. He is also the host of VOA's American Cafe, a weekly show covering life and culture in the United States.