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Project May 28, 2021

Between Two Rivers: Searching for Omar ibn Said


Last year was the 350th anniversary of Charleston, South Carolina, a beautiful coastal city once the epicenter of the slave trade. Historians estimate that almost half of enslaved Africans brought to America came through the Port of Charleston.

One was Omar ibn Said.

Omar, a 37-year-old Muslim scholar, was captured in Senegal and put aboard a slave ship to Charleston in 1807. His life and journey offer a rare look into the estimated 30 percent of enslaved people who were Muslim — and a new way to examine Charleston's history as well.

During Omar's remarkable life, he escaped a brutal master in Charleston, fled to North Carolina and became a minor celebrity due to his literacy and reported conversion to Christianity. His writings include the only surviving autobiography penned in Arabic by an enslaved person in America.

After the Library of Congress acquired Omar's writings in 2017, Charleston's Spoleto Festival USA commissioned an opera about his life. With its nearly all-Black cast, the opera was set to debut in June 2020 in Charleston.

The Post and Courier has dedicated two reporters and a visual journalist to pursue these two narratives, one following the opera's production, one following our search for Omar. The newspaper sent reporter Jennifer Berry Hawes and photographer Gavin McIntyre to Senegal to retrace Omar's life and learn his story from an African point of view.