Outside a former school on the 2300 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, a male employee is selling oils and incense. Inside, immediately to the left, is a display about the Moors of Delaware; in the back of the room, near a left-hand corner is another display, about author Alex Haley’s great grandfather, Kunta Kinte.

In the light of negative media images of Islam and its followers, especially after September 11th, local resident Amir Muhammad opened America’s Islamic Historic Museum and Cultural Center, in a facility once known as the Clara Muhammad School. The information on display is a culmination of Muhammad’s years of research on Islamic history in America, and was once a traveling exhibit.

“Our stories are not being told,” said Muhammad, the museum’s president and curator, who’d been practicing Islam for over 40 years. He said he’d been working for an immigrant organization in the 1990’s when he looked at the way Muslims were depicted in mainstream society and said “They don’t know us.”

His family is originally from Georgia and as a child, his father told him the Gullah people were Muslims, but Muhammad’s father was not. Growing up in the 1960’s, Muhammad said he also knew about the Nation of Islam, and credited the religion for “ him a sense of manhood,” as well as increasing his understanding of Jesus.

As an adult, the curator, 57, began his cross-country odyssey to discover the nation’s Islamic roots. The information and artifacts he found came from a variety of sources.
During his research, the husband and father “traveled around the country, researched cemeteries, went to historical societies, visited descendants,” said Muhammad.

Among his findings: Muslims “came as far back as 1312,” and have fought in all of America’s wars, from the Revolutionary War to the present-day War in Iraq. Moreover, according to the exhibit, there are over 500 places in the country with names that are Arabic in origin: Toledo, Ohio, Medina, Texas, and Mecca, Ind. are just a few mentioned in the exhibit.

The Moors of Delaware arrived in the First State in mid- to late-1600s, and intermingled with the Nanticoke Indians. Closer to home, the Washington-Baltimore region also has its share of Islamic history. Yarrow Marmood was a slave from Guinea who was given his freedom by Upton Beall of Montgomery County, and would go on to create a hauling business and own property in Georgetown.

“My first impression was, ‘Wow,’” said Vinetta Logan, an outreach specialist who lives in Southeast. There were “a lot of things I did not know.”

Once Muhammad had found enough information to chronicle the history of Islam in America, he then went on a cross-country tour in 1996, presenting the results of his research in a traveling exhibit.

Soon, the exhibit increased in popularity; it has been to Harvard more than once, and was on display for State Department employees. However, the exhibit’s contents still did not have a permanent home. In fact, Muhammad said he kept the exhibit in his own home.

Recently, there has been even more news coverage involving Muslims around the world: the Arab Spring protests, the Seal Team Six’s killing of Osama bin Laden. Instead of tweaking his exhibit to follow the whims of what’s going on, Muhammad has decided to stay the course, by continuing to educate people about Islam’s positive contributions to America.

“We don’t get involved,” Muhammad said. The persistent negative coverage has only motivated him to continue to educate the masses, he said. To illustrate how people are interconnected to each other, Muhammad pointed out how during the Arab Spring uprisings, there were demonstrators who held signs with quotes of Dr. King.

Even the museum’s employees have been positively impacted by the museum.

“It gives you an encounter of your past, to know where you came from,” said museum volunteer Richardine Banks, who said she particularly likes the portion of the exhibit chronicling life in the 1800s.

In the future, Muhammad hopes to find a permanent location for the museum, and there is currently and oral history project and cultural arts programs. Since the museum’s opening, said Muhammad, the response has definitely been more positive than negative.

“They’re (visitors) flabbergasted, speechless,” Muhammad said, when asked to describe the public’s reaction. “Definitely, the word is starting to get out.”

Karisse Carmack

Special to the AFRO