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Islam's influence on black history: highlights of NC's Muslim heritage

Students at the Berry O'Kelly School
Students at the Berry O'Kelly School
NC Division of Archives and History

A recent forum clearly pointed out the parallels between the oppression of Palestinians, most of whom are Muslims, and the oppression of African Americans. However, history shows that there is Muslims in Palestine and African Americans in the United States have much more in common than being victims of prejudice and oppression. This article is the first in a series on Islam’s influence on the history of blacks in America.

Although the Islamic Association of Raleigh’s (IAR) presence in the Method Community in Raleigh is fairly recent, the Muslim presence in North Carolina goes much farther back in time – even before the establishment of “The Lost Colony” on Roanoke Island, NC and the settling of Jamestown, VA!

During a raid on the coast of Brazil in 1586, the English pirate, Sir Francis Drake, captured some West African Muslims. Drake had planned to release the Africans on Cuba, but storms forced them to continue up the coast of North Carolina. When Drake landed on Roanoke Island, he met some stranded English settlers pleading for a ride home so he left the West African Muslims along with some Moors, Turks, Portuguese soldiers, and South American Indians on the Island.

Apparently, some of the Muslims that Drake left behind moved from the coast to the mountains because in 1654, English explorers from Jamestown reported finding a colony of bearded people they called "Moors." The English explorers described these Moors as wearing European clothing, living in cabins, engaging in mining, smelting silver and dropping to their knees to pray many times daily in the mountains of North Carolina.

Tthe history of Muslims in North Carolina and the IAR locating in the Method Community, which has a rich history of its own, reminds us of how the history of Muslims in America and the history of Africans in America are interwoven.

The industriousness that the English explorers from Jamestown discovered among the Muslims in the mountains in 1654 is very similar to the industriousness and entrepreneurial spirit of the founders of the Method community. The Muslims in the mountains were involved in the smelting and trading of silver and the founders of Method were involved in the development of real estate – both groups were very business minded and good at their business!

One of the founders of the Method Community who was involved in the real estate business was Jesse Mason. At the end of the Civil War, Brigadier General William Ruffin Cox began to invest in community development around Raleigh, such as the railroad, and even offered to sell some land to his former carriage driver, John O’Kelly. O’Kelly had also worked as a builder, and had a hand in the construction of J.P. Prairie’s Standard building on Fayetteville Street as well as various railroad projects. It is most likely the railroad construction that brought John O’Kelly together with the Mason family. The O’Kellys and Masons were former slaves, but were working after emancipation to buy their own homes for the first time. John O’Kelly died before he had the chance to buy some land, but his friend Lewis Mason, who also built railroads, was intrigued by the idea. Lewis then passed the idea on to his father, Jesse Mason, and a plan was hatched.

Jesse Mason invested in 69 acres of land in what was then called House Creek Township, part of which had been Camp Mangum during the Civil War. In the spring of 1870, Mason began to subdivide and sell lots to former slaves. They built small, log-cabin or slab houses with dirt floors, much like the early colonial pioneers had once constructed. The new town four miles west of Raleigh was called Mason’s Village, or by the nick-names Slabtown, or Save-Rent.

Berry O’Kelly, who had been born in Orange County, was raised by his kin in Mason’s Village. He began by working at the general store in the village, and within a few short years, he bought the store. Soon afterward, he had succeeded in bringing a railroad spur to the village, starting a trans-Atlantic mercantile and warehouse, and establishing Mason Village’s first post office.
By the 1950s, Method was still a rural community with dirt roads and no sewage or water systems. Residents came together to erect street signs as the city of Raleigh encroached from the east. Then in the 1960s, Raleigh incorporated Method and put up all new street signs with entirely different names. Method community members gathered at Raleigh City Council meetings and demanded that their street names be changed back, and a compromise was reached. Method Road now stretches from Beryl Road (named for Berry O’Kelly’s daughter), to Western Boulevard, where it changes over to the Raleigh-given name, Kent.
Although there is no direct connection between the Muslims in the mountains of pre-colonial North Carolina and the founders of the Method community, both groups shared the character trait of being keen at business – the early Muslims in the trade of silver and the founders of Method in the trade of real estate. One of the founders of Method, Berry O’Kelly, also shared a trait with current Muslims in the Method Community – a passion for education. Just as he succeeded in transforming the village’s one-room schoolhouse into the Berry O’Kelly School for training black teachers, the IAR has transformed part of its campus into the Al-Iman, An-Noor, and Al-Furqan schools.

Now that we, 21st century Muslims have discovered some common threads in our heritage and that of the founders of the Method Community of which we are proud to be members, we hope to weave the common threads of our heritage into a cord of community mindedness that compels us to enthusiastically work together to preserve our rich past and produce an even more prosperous future – a future in which our youth of today will emerge as leaders of tomorrow!

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