“African Americans were really the pioneers in establishing and maintaining and institutionalizing Pittsburgh’s Muslims,” said Sarahjameela Martin, president of the Muslim Women’s Association of Pittsburgh. “It’s not often talked about.” (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)
The Black founders of Pittsburgh’s first mosque ‘didn’t have anything,’ writer Sarahjameela Martin said. Still, they laid the groundwork for Islam’s future in the city.
by Chris Hedlin, PublicSource
In the 1930s, Black Pittsburghers established one of the first chartered Muslim mosques in the United States.
In one sense, it was sheer perseverance, said Sarahjameela Martin, executive director of the Muslim Women’s Association of Pittsburgh who is writing a book on local African American Muslim history.
During the early decades of the 20th century, many Black Southerners migrated North, escaping racial violence and seeking industry jobs.
Some of these migrants were Christian. Others were suspicious of Christianity, recalling that many enslaved Africans were forced to convert to the faith in the United States. Scholars estimate that 10-30% of Africans enslaved in the United States were originally of Muslim descent.
From the Source podcast episode: “Pittsburgh’s Black Muslim history uncovered.”
For migrants seeking “to revert” to the Muslim faith — the term often used in Islam instead of convert to capture a sense of return to an original or natural state — Pittsburgh offered an African American Muslim community just beginning to coalesce or organize.
The earliest Muslims in Pittsburgh were likely formerly enslaved Black Americans who came to the city by way of the Underground Railroad, Martin said. For her, that history is personal.
“I am Sarahjameela, the daughter of Mary Ellen, who was the daughter of Sarah, who was the daughter of Nancy, who was the daughter of one kidnapped and enslaved in America,” she said.
It’s hard to know how — or to what extent — these early Pittsburgh Muslims practiced their faith, Martin said. There aren’t diaries or accounts of community gatherings. Instead the evidence is in early city records and gravemarkers: there are entries with African American Muslim names, names also found scratched into the walls of slave ships from the Middle Passage.
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