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Story Publication logo June 4, 2021

Understand SC: How 'The Post and Courier' Searched for Omar ibn Said’s True Identity


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The Post and Courier hunts for clues to the only enslaved person in the U.S. to pen an extant...

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The question is one that propelled a lengthy reporting process and led a pair of journalists from South Carolina across the Atlantic Ocean to Senegal: Who was Omar ibn Said, really?

When two Post and Courier journalists started pursuing that question, they knew Omar was a Muslim scholar who, at age 37, was captured from his home in Futa Toro and forced onto a slave ship bound for Charleston. Omar had lived the rest of his life enslaved, first in South Carolina and then North Carolina.

Gavin McIntyre crouches down to take a photograph in a narrow street.
The Post and Courier’s Gavin McIntyre photographs a Quranic school in a small Senegalese village called Dimat. Image by Jennifer Berry Hawes/Post and Courier. Senegal, 2021.

Throughout that time, Omar wrote at least 15 surviving texts in Arabic, including the only known surviving autobiography written in Arabic by someone still enslaved in America.

When that autobiography was bought by the Library of Congress, digitized and made available to the public, Omar’s story sprang from obscurity.

While Omar’s writing gave insight into his life, his past and his faith, it also raised questions. He provided little detail about where he was from. That mystery of what place Omar had called home became key to The Post and Courier’s Pulitzer Center-supported project.

Jennifer Berry Hawes, wearing a medical face mask, stands and takes a photograph in a doorway.
Reporter Jennifer Berry Hawes shoots video inside the House of Slaves on Goree Island. Image by Gavin McIntyre/Staff. Senegal, 2021.

This week, the journalists behind that project, writer Jennifer Berry Hawes and photographer Gavin McIntyre, share details from their reporting process, the challenges they ran into along the way and what their days in Senegal taught them about who Omar really was.

While some of the questions they sought out to answer didn’t have a definitive resolution, their quest — with the help of translators, imams, historians and others — uncovered new revelations about Omar’s life. 

Listen now for more.

Understand SC is a weekly podcast from The Post and Courier that draws from the reporting resources and knowledge of our newsroom to help you better understand South Carolina. This episode was hosted and edited by Emily Williams



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