by Bill Batson
In October, Fox Searchlight will release a film starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard and Brad Pitt about a New York State resident, Solomon Northup, who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery. Renee Moore, who lived in Nyack for several years, was instrumental in saving Northup’s story from obscurity. Follow the American odyssey that transformed a free man into a slave and then back again. And marvel at how the Homeric tale moved from harrowing memoir to historic marker to the Hollywood movie, 12 Years A Slave
Solomon Northup was born a free man in Minerva, NY in 1808, the year that the United States Congress banned the importation of African slaves. At his birth, slavery was legal in New York, but was abolished by the state legislature in 1827. When he was abducted in 1841, Northup was married, had three children, owned property and worked as a raftsman on the waterways of upstate New York,.
Northup’s account, Twelve Years A Slave, further exposed the extreme viciousness and venality of American slavery. The memoir describes savage beatings, attempted lynchings and thwarted escapes. The book is an invaluable first person account of the agricultural and business methods of the southern states during the practice of slavery, from the perspective of a slave and skilled storyteller.
It is difficult to imagine the psychological and physical strength necessary to endure the ordeal of being deprived of one’s freedom, separated from family and coerced into labor for someone else’s profit. Yet Northup’s unshakable humanity is evident in some moments of humor in his narrative. In one passage, he describes malnutrition on a plantation this way: “no slave is likely to suffer gout, superinduced by excessive high living.”
Northup facilitated his own escape by getting word of his condition to relations in the north at great risk through clandestine correspondence. New York State Governor Washington Hunt appointed a member of the family that once owned Solomon’s father, Mintus, to travel to Louisiana as an official agent of the state to escort Solomon Northup home.
After living for twelve years as a slave, Northup was reunited with his family in 1853. Not much is known about the last chapter of his life. Northup is believed to have died in 1863, the year that slavery was abolished in the United States.
Renee Moore, whose family has been in Saratoga County for generations, learned about Northup’s connection to her community from a Union College exhibit at Nott Memorial in the late 90s. “I attended the last day before closing and discovered while viewing the exhibition that Mr. Northup had lived and worked in Saratoga Springs.”
According to a Union College magazine article that came out at the time of the display that Moore attended, “A bestseller in its time, the book [Twelve Years a Slave] had been largely forgotten, save for a 1968 reprinting, until a new exhibit in the Nott Memorial brought the story to life.”
In 1999, Moore convinced Saratoga Springs Mayor J. Michael O’Connell to officially acknowledge the Northup legacy. As a result of her activism, in addition to an annual day of recognition, a historical marker was erected at the corner of Congress St. and Broadway, near the spot where Northup met his abductors.
On July 20, hundreds attended the 15th annual Solomon Northup Day at Skidmore College. Sixty-two descendants of Solomon Northup and his wife, Ann Hampton, participated in this year’s program. Traditionally, observance of Solomon Northup Day is a multi-venue, multi day event that features local and international artists, historians, authors, and griots.
As founder of the annual Solomon Northup Day, Moore has specific goals for the commemoration that extend beyond the province of historic preservation and academia. For Moore, organizing historic displays and public events are as much about the future as the past. “It’s a way of ‘remembering’ so that we, as Americans, as African-Americans don’t forget how far we have come and, to encourage youth to speak up for human freedom and justice.”
Producers of the Fox Seachlight film, 12 Years A slave, screened a sneak preview at the Solomon Northup Day program at Skidmore College. Moore sees the movie as another important opportunity for social progress. “I am expecting that this film will be exciting to watch and will hopefully cause more people around the nation to read the autobiography as well as learn more about American history in general.”
When the 19th century memoir was published, it was dedicated to Harriett Beecher Stowe, the author of the anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and became a part of a literary movement that helped abolish slavery. Audiences from New York to Louisiana, where Solomon and tens of thousands were held in slavery’s stubborn and soulless grip, will see how Hollywood handles this pernicious period in American history.
The recent acquittal of George Zimmerman in Trayvon Martin’s shooting death exposed a racial rift in America that goes back to the institution of African slavery. Let’s hope that the 21st century film adaptation of this ex-slaves memoir will give context to some of our unresolved conflicts and that Northup’s enduring humanity will elevate our dialogue and our deeds.
Special thanks to Enid Mastrianni for introducing me to Renee Moore and Solomon Northup.
Bill Batson is an activist, artist and writer who lives and sketches in Nyack, NY. Nyack Sketch Log: “Ex-Slave’s Harrowing Memoir now a Hollywood Movie“ © 2013 Bill Batson