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Muslims in Antebellum Georgia: Introduction

Praise House, Sapelo Island, Ga.

Image photograph of a praise house on Sapelo Island, Georgia

Muriel and Malcolm Bell shot this photograph of a "praise house" on Sapelo Island, Georgia, in 1940. The image was used in the book Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies Among the Coastal Negroes, published by the Georgia Writers' Project. In the book, Sapelo Island residents Katie Brown and Shad Hall share stories about their ancestors Bilali Muhammad and his wife, Phoebe, a Muslim couple who were enslaved on Sapelo Island with their daughters. "Magret an uh daughtuh Cotto use tuh say dat Belali an he wife Phoebe pray on duh bead. Dey wuz bery puhticluh bout duh time dey pray an dey bery regluh bout duh hour." -- Katie Brown

Image photograph of Katie Brown

Katie Brown of Sapelo Island, Ga.

Photographs by Muriel and Malcolm Bell


Image collage of books covers

Muslims have a history in America that spans as far back as the earliest explorers of this continent. Scholars have estimated that from 10 to 30 percent of enslaved West Africans were of the Muslim faith, and others came as immigrants beginning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

This LibGuide provides information about two prominent Muslims who were enslaved in Georgia in the early 1800s. While there are numerous selected books, films and other materials included here, it is meant to be an introduction to the topic and a doorway to additional resources. 

Bilali Muhammad (c.1770-c.1857) was an enslaved man who lived on Sapelo Island, Georgia. He was purchased in the Bahamas around 1801 by Georgia politician and agriculturalist Thomas SpaldingBilali was a Fula, originally from Timbo, in the empire of Fouta-Djallon, in present-day Guinea. Bilali Muhammad and his wife, Phoebe, had twelve sons, whose fates are unknown, and seven daughters -- Binto, Charlotte, Fatima, Hester, Margaret, Medina and Yoruba.

Salih Bilali (c.1770-c.1846) also was a Muslim Fula, and he was from Kianah on the Niger River, in the kingdom of Massina. He was purchased in the Bahamas by John Couper, and taken to St. Simons Island, Georgia, where he was enslaved.

Both Salih Bilali and Bilali Muhammad served as slave drivers on their island plantations. 

Sapelo Island and St. Simons Island were very isolated, which allowed both men and other Muslim slaves to freely adhere to their Islamic faith, as well as other traditions from their ancestral home. Both Sapelo and St. Simons are part of the Gullah-Geechee Heritage Corridor. The Gullah-Geechee are the descendants of West African slaves who lived on islands and in mainland communities stretching from North Carolina to northern Florida, near Jacksonville. Their isolation allowed them to retain many of their West African traditions.

In the 1820s, Bilali Muhammad hand-wrote a 13-page text in Arabic. That document is housed in the Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library at the University of Georgia.

Subject Guide

Michele Nicole Johnson's picture
Michele Nicole Johnson
Coastal Pines Technical College
Golden Isles Site, Room 1212
3700 Glynco Parkway
Brunswick, Georgia
Website / Blog Page

Special Thanks

This LibGuide borrows from a research guide originally created for College of Coastal Georgia. Special thanks to the librarians at CCGA for allowing CPTC to share this information.