Prince Among Slaves

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Abdul Rahman Ibrahim ibn Sori (a.k.a. Abdul Rahman) was a prince  from West Africa who was made a slave in the United States.  After spending  40 years in slavery, he was freed in 1828 by order of President John Quincy Adams and Secretary of State Henry Clay after the Sultan of Morocco requested his release.

He was born in 1762 in Timbo, West Africa, (in present day Guinea, Fouta Djallon).  He was known as the “Prince of Slaves” or “Prince.” He was a Fulbe or Fulani, (Futa) of the land of Fouta Djallon.  Ibrahim left Futa in 1774 to study in Mali at Timbuktu.  Ibrahim was leader of one of his father’s army divisions.  After winning a battle against a warring nation, he took with him a few soldiers to report back to his father, when he was ambushed, captured, and sold to slave traders in 1788 at the age of 26. He was bought by a Natchez, Mississippi cotton plantation owner, and eventually became the overseer of the plantation of Thomas Foster.  In 1794 he married Isabella, another slave of Foster’s and eventually fathered a large family: five sons and four daughters.

By using his knowledge of growing cotton in Fouta Djallon, Abd al-Rahman Ibrahim rose to a position of authority on the plantation and became the de facto foreeman.  This granted him the opportunity to grow his own vegetable garden and sell at the local market.  During this time, he met an old acquaintance, Dr. John Cox.  Dr. Cox was an Irish surgeon who had served on an English ship. He was the first white man to reach Timbo after being stranded by his ship and falling ill.  Cox stayed ashore for six months and was taken in by the Abd al-Rahman Ibrahim family.  Cox appealed  to Foster to sell him “Prince” so he could return to Africa.  However, Foster would not budge, since he viewed Abd al-Rahman Ibrahim as indispensable to the Foster farm (among other reasons).  Dr. Cox continued, until his death in 1816, to seek Ibrahim’s freedom, to no avail.  After Cox died, Ibrahim continued the cause.

In 1826, Abd al-Rahman Ibrahim wrote a letter to his relatives in Africa.  A local newspaperman, Andrew Marschalk, who was originally from New York, sent a copy to Senator Thomas Reed in Washington, who forwarded it to the U.S. Consulate in Morocco.  Since Abd al-Rahman Ibrahim wrote in Arabic, Marschalk and the U.S. government assumed that he was a Moor.  After the Sultan of Morocco Abd er-Rahmane read the letter, he asked President Adams and Secretary of State Henry Clay to release Abd al-Rahman Ibrahim.  In 1828, Thomas Foster agreed to the release of Ibrahim, without payment, with the stipulation that Ibrahim return to Africa and not live as a free man in America.

Before leaving the U.S., Ibrahim and his wife went to various states and Washington, D.C. He solicited donations, through the press, personal appearances, the American Colonization Society and politicians, to free his family back in Mississippi. Word got back to Foster, who considered  this a breach of the agreement.  Abd al-Rahman’s actions and freedom were also used against President John Quincy Adams by future president Andrew Jackson during the presidential election.

After ten months, Abd al-Rahman Ibrahim and Isabella had raised only half the funds to free their children.  They made arrangements to leave America.  he went to Monrovia, Liberia with his wife.  Abd al-Rahman Ibrahim lived for four months before he contracted a fever and died at the age of 67.  He never saw Fouta Djallon or his children again.

The funds that Abd al-Rahman and Isabella raised bought the freedom pf two sons and their families.  They were reunited with Isabella in Monrovia. Thomas Foster died the same year as Abd al-Rahman.  Foster’s estate, including Abd al-Rahman’s other children and grandchildren, was divided among Foster’s heirs and scattered across Mississippi and the South.  Abd al-Rahman’s descendants still reside in Monrovia and the United States.  In 2006, Abd al-Rahman’s descendants gathered for a family reunion at Foster’s field.  Abd al-Rahman Ibrahim wrote two autobiographies. A drawing of him is displayed in the Library of Congress.

In 1977, history professor Terry Alford documented the life of Ibn Sori in Prince Among Slaves, the first full account of his life, pieced together from first-person accounts and historical documents.  In Prince Among Slaves, Alford Writes: Among Henry Clay’s documents, for the year 1829 we find the January 1 entry, “Prince Ibrahima, an Islamic prince sold into slavery 40 years ago, and freed with the stipulation that he return (in this case the word “return” makes sense) to Africa, joined the black citizens of Philadelphia as an honored guest in their New Year’s Day parade, up Lombard and Walnut, and down Chestnut and Spruce streets.

Early in 2008 PBS showed a Spark Media Incorporated and Unity Productions Foundation film directed by Andrea Kalin titled Prince Among Slaves, portraying the life of Abdul Rahman. The film had premiered in Cincinnati, Ohio, on 2007 June

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