The exhaustive end to a long-running investigative story came on Tuesday, May 25, at the Charleston Gaillard Center. “‘I am Omar,’” a captivating story told by reporter Jennifer Berry Hawes and photojournalist Gavin McIntyre, was put on full display to an audience of eager listeners. The Pulitzer Center funded Hawes and McIntyre on their pursuits throughout Senegal to track down the identity and origins of Omar Ibn Said, a Muslim man enslaved in the Carolinas.
Who is Omar?
Omar wrote his brief autobiography 190 years ago and left today’s readers with a chilling time capsule into what life entailed for a Muslim in the 1830s. His words were a tangle of two decades’ worth of slave stories and religious Quran readings. A quick read at 28 pages, but a deep dive into decades of hardships of a 37-year-old innocent relocated to the busiest slave port in America– Charleston, South Carolina.
With the help of knowledgeable local Imam Amadou Baîdy Sy, the journalists deciphered Omar’s Arabic words to uncover many of his life experiences. He was a skilled student with a strong religious backing, but his talents were wasted at the hands of “Johnson” and James Owen, his owners in Charleston and Fayetteville, North Carolina. He struggled with pulls towards both the Islamic religion and Evangelical Christianity, forcing him to reconcile with spiritual belonging in a new world. A multitude of names were used to describe him and his hardworking religiosity– “Moreau,” “Uncle Moro,” “Prince Moro,”– but his ties would always be rooted in “Omar.” The different identities and locations that Omar experienced throughout his lifetime left McIntyre and Hawes eager to sort through the findings and share their clarity with the masses.
Post and Courier Findings
McIntyre’s and Hawes’ months’ worth of dedicated investigative journalism warranted a platform to showcase their findings. The event highlighted the importance of the Post and Courier Public Service and Investigative Reporting Fund; visitors helped to fundraise for future stories that warrant additional research, thought, and digression. Attendees toured the evocative gallery of shots taken throughout Senegal, all of which were complemented by a descriptive audio component. The display preceded the captivating panel discussion that shared additional insights into the journalists’ quest to find the true identity of Omar. Post and Courier reporter Autumn Phillips provoked McIntyre and Hawes with both personally crafted and audience-based questions to get a glimpse into their journey.
Spoleto Festival Contribution
Tuesday’s event also gave Spoleto Festival USA the stirrings of the platform they have been seeking since 2020. Repeated performance delays due to Covid-19 have kept the public from learning about Omar’s life through an opera written by Grammy Award-winner Rhiannon
Giddens. Finally, viewers got a look at the powerful compositions that Omar’s autobiography inspired. Laquita Mitchell stunned the audience with an aria from Giddens’ Omar and was accompanied by a powerful piano melody from Diane Richardson.
The evening’s impressive attendance included Jonathan Green, renowned Charleston artist and creator of an Omar Ibn Said coloring book, Nigel Redden, General Director of Spoleto Festival USA, and PJ Browning, Publisher of The Post and Courier. All attendees were taken by a thrilling tale that had managed to influence the creations of various story-telling platforms.
While Tuesday’s event acted as the sigh of relief to a hard-sought story, the sense of finality was only temporary. The intrigue behind Omar and his past will always leave lingering questions in both the reporters’ and readers’ minds. To continue satisfying the public’s curiosity, a display of McIntyre’s photographs will be presented at the Charleston County Public Library this Wednesday, June 9. Details about Omar and his story will complement the photographs; the efforts to inform Charlestonians about a story that existed in their backyard warrants much more than a simple story. Hawes’ and McIntyre’s pursuits made great strides towards answering the question that has plagued locals, writers, composers, historians, tourists and more for ages: who was Omar Ibn Said? It will take continued determination and compassion for investigative journalism to ever approach the whole story.
Want to contribute to the Post and Courier Public Service and Investigative Reporting Fund? Email Mary Fox at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.
Written by Claire Filaski