Omar Ibn Said, a slave and Arabic scholar, was born in Futa Toro (now a part of the Republic of Senegal) of an aristocratic Moslem family. Educated in Koranic schools, he was a teacher and tradesman for about fifteen years and purportedly made a pilgrimage to Mecca during the period 1790–1805. In 1807 he was found guilty of an unspecified crime and sold by his people, the Fulas, to an American slave trader. Taken to Charleston, S.C., Omar was among the last Africans to reach the United States prior to the outlawing of the overseas slave trade at the end of 1807. After working for two years as a slave in Charleston and on a South Carolina rice plantation, he escaped in 1810 and made his way to Fayetteville, N.C., near which he was recaptured. When efforts to find his legal owner proved unavailing, he became the property of General James Owen of Bladen County. At Owen’s Cape Fear River estate called Milton, Omar was taught English and converted to the Christian religion, joining the First Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville in 1820.
The Owen family, intrigued by Omar’s facility with Arabic and his scholarly bent, gave him little work and permitted him ample time to study an Arabic translation of the Bible that was procured for him by General Owen. Occasional spates of journalistic interest, fanned by false reports that Omar was the son of an African king, circulated his name and circumstances widely during the antebellum era. In 1836 he moved with the Owen family to Wilmington, where he was active in the Presbyterian congregation and host to many visitors anxious to witness his unusual ability to read and write in Arabic. There are reports that he accompanied his owners to resort springs in the South and there entertained children with folk stories. An added source of public interest in the 1850s was Omar’s advanced age.