Oral History of Muslims in North Carolina Prior to 1980

North Carolina has had a vibrant Muslim community since the 1950’s. A close-knit network of young and hip members of the Nation of Islam (NOI) laid the foundation for future communities in the state. Some of them were native North Carolinians, but some of them came from the Baltimore, MD area. Chief among them was Minister/Imam Kenny Muhammad (Kenneth Murray) and his wife, Margaret, who reigned as the pioneers of North Carolina’s Muslim community, using their own labor, money, and charisma to establish mosques, businesses, and political alliances within the state.

Unfortunately, not much has been written about the origins of this community. Were you to search the web for “Muslims in North Carolina” you will not find much about its history. Books and local archives at institutions like Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill only have peripheral materials related to this history. If you know what to look for, you will find more specific information about the history of Muslims in North Carolina, but there’s not much.

Though the community has existed for nearly 70 years, it is only now that individuals are beginning to record and discuss its history. One major contribution to this development has been the efforts of Katie Spencer and Naomi Feaste who, in the name of the Museum of Durham History, received a grant from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art to curate an exhibit featuring the legacy of the Ar-Razzaq Islamic Center, the state’s oldest mosque.

While I assisted in the creation of this exhibit, I had already begun working on a similar project with a broader scope. Back in 2005, I interviewed the late legendary jazz pianist, Yusuf Salim (Joseph Blair) who was in a band with Kenny Muhammad and actually introduced him to the teachings of the NOI. He gave me a first-hand account of the development of the Muslim community and sparked in me the idea to do more interviews. It wasn’t until spring 2016, my last semester in a graduate program for Library and Information Science, that I had the sufficient background knowledge, professional training, and ear of the community to launch an oral history project.

My idea was to record the stories and perspectives of the living pioneers of the community in a professional oral history project that could be later be placed in an archival institution. In addition to covering voices from Ar-Razzaq, I would seek out pioneers who are not currently affiliated with that community to round out the perspectives. Conversations with these pioneers were to center around the following five themes:

  1. Activism
  2. Religious and organizational philosophy
  3. Culture and the arts
  4. Education
  5. Characteristics of the city of Durham prior to 1980

I started interviewing people in the summer of 2016, starting of course, with Margaret Muhammad, then her daughter and son-in-law, Rhonda and Oliver Muhammad. By the end of the summer, I had completed about seven interviews. Since I was taking a position at the American University in Cairo, I felt the need to bid farewell to the community and present to them my progress on the project and promise my continued work on it in my future summer vacations to the U.S.

A project of this nature is important because it can be duplicated in communities around the U.S., were they to interpret the model I created in my manual. If organized from within the Muslim community being studied, then it can serve as a platform that can heal rifts and attract various types of resources. Likewise, it can serve as primary source material for researchers looking for information on the history of Islam in America. It is important that Muslims tell those stories themselves, rather than leaving it to the whims of people that might have malicious intent towards Muslims or otherwise distorted views in gathering information and interpreting it. It is my hope that this and similar projects provide a basis for an independent Islamic archive and research center.

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