The Omar Ibn Said Collection consists of 42 digitized documents in both English and Arabic, including an 1831 manuscript in Arabic on "The Life of Omar Ibn Said," a West African slave in America, which is the centerpiece of this unique collection of texts. Some of the manuscripts in this collection include texts in Arabic by another West African slave in Panama, and others from individuals located in West Africa.
The collection was put together by Theodore Dwight (1796-1866), an abolitionist and founding member of the American Ethnological Society, in the early 1860s. This unique collection is very important for several reasons: first because Omar ibn Said's autobiography is the only known extant autobiography of a slave written in Arabic in America. The importance of this lies in the fact that such a biography was not edited by Omar ibn Said's owner, as those of other slaves written in English were, and is therefore surmised to be more authentic. Second, it is an important document that attests to the high level of education, and the long tradition of a written culture that existed in Africa at the time. It also reveals that many Africans who were brought to the United States as slaves were followers of Islam, an Abrahamic and monotheistic faith. Such documentation counteracts prior assumptions of African life and culture. Finally, although it is a very well-known collection, it appears to have moved from owner to owner, and even to have disappeared for almost half a century before having been re-discovered by the last private owner Derrick J. Beard. He was a well-known collector of African-American memorabilia and wanted to have this collection at the Library of Congress and make it available to researchers world-wide. This collection is a tremendous tool for research on Africa in the 18th and 19th century, and will shed light on the complex history of American slavery