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Ensuring the legacy of Solomon Northup

Annual event, books, movie recognize Saratoga Springs native who was abducted into slavery

Sunday, July 14, 2013
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A pen-and-ink sketch of Solomon Northup from the collection of the New York Historical Society.
A pen-and-ink sketch of Solomon Northup from the collection of the New York Historical Society.

When Renee Moore first heard Solomon Northup’s story of abduction into slavery and then his return to freedom, she wanted to share it with the world. She settled for Saratoga Springs.

“I wanted to make sure that his legacy is recognized in Saratoga,” said Moore, who created Solomon Northup Day in Saratoga Springs back in 1999 and is once again in charge of this year’s event, set for Saturday from noon to 4 p.m. at Filene Hall on the campus of Skidmore College.

“I had never heard of him, and when I asked people in Saratoga about him, they didn’t really have an understanding of the man and his story. Nobody knew about him.”

That is changing, and not just locally. Along with the 15th annual Solomon Northup Day celebration on Saturday, local author David Fiske wrote a book about Northup, “Solomon Northup: His Life Before and After Slavery,” which was published last year. He is following that with another book in collaboration with Union College professor Clifford Brown and Skidmore College’s Rachel Seligman, “The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave,” due out later this month.

'Solomon Northup Day'

WHERE: Filene Hall, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs

WHEN: Noon to 4 p.m. Saturday

HOW MUCH: Free

MORE INFO: Contact Renee Moore at themoor78@yahoo.com or 596-4329 or Enid Mastrianni at enid.mastrianni@verizon.net or 743-9139

Also, in October, Hollywood will be offering its own interpretation of Northup’s story, “Twelve Years a Slave,” starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alfre Woodard, Michael Fassbender and Paul Giamatti. “Twelve Years a Slave” was the title of Northup’s autobiography that was published in 1853 and sold 30,000 copies before the Civil War.

“I’m excited about the movie, but Hollywood is Hollywood, and it’s not a documentary,” said Moore. “Their first obligation is to sell tickets, but they do have a great, well-respected cast, so I hope the movie is satisfying. My first priority is to present the actual history of this African-American man who survived 12 years of slavery. I have to honor his story and his legacy.”

First time at Skidmore

Moore was born in Harlem, raised in Saratoga Springs and graduated from Skidmore College with a degree in public administration. She is happy to have her event at Skidmore College for the first time after it was previously held at the Saratoga Springs Visitors Center.

“We want to grow this event, and I liked the idea of moving it to Skidmore,” she said. “I think having it in an academic setting gives it a little more credibility.”

“I think having it at Skidmore, on a college campus, elevates the event,” said Enid Mastrianni, who is organizing the event with Moore. “We have several wonderful speakers, and we’re very happy to be moving it to Skidmore. The college has been great helping us get ready, and there’s a lot of excitement this year because the movie will be coming out soon.”

It was on the campus of Union College in Schenectady where Moore first learned about Northup in 1999. Seligman, now assistant director for curatorial affairs at Skidmore’s Tang Museum, was the director and curator at Union’s Mandeville Gallery and along with Brown and a handful of students put together an exhibit on Northup’s life.

He was born a free man in Saratoga Springs in July of 1808 but was kidnapped in 1841 by two white men who enticed him with a job offer in Washington. Those two men sold Northup into slavery, to a plantation owner in Louisiana, and for 12 years he was held in bondage. Friends of Northup’s, using a law that had been passed in 1840 in New York allowing the state to recover those illegally sold into slavery, eventually helped him regain his freedom in 1853.

A number of speakers will make presentations at Saturday’s event, including Don Papson, founder of the North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association and the North Star Underground Railroad Museum in Ausable Chasm.

“Northup has an incredible story, and his story is special because of the completeness of his autobiography,” said Papson. “Almost all of the names and dates included in his book have been correct. We have a small little museum with a huge story to tell, but we have a panel on Northup because his story is so important to the history of the Underground Railroad.”

Papson recently found a historic poster from a newspaper in Fitchburg, Mass., in 1853 promoting a theatrical presentation about Northup’s life. Northup often spoke about his experience at public gatherings and toured with a troupe of actors who put on a play telling his story.

“He traveled widely giving talks,” said Fiske, a retired state librarian, “and in 1854 they put together a play in Syracuse that wasn’t very successful. Solomon was in that play, but I guess he wasn’t a very good actor. The play in Fitchburg was longer and had five acts, and they didn’t make the mistake of having Solomon play himself. The acting group toured for a while with Northup, but it’s hard to say how successful it was. A newspaper in St. Albans, Vermont, reported that during one show the actors got intoxicated and started a fight.”

Northup evidently also enjoyed alcohol in excess on occasion, and, along with debt problems, that may have contributed to his downfall. He dropped out of sight following the Civil War and was never heard from again.

“He was an intelligent man, a survivor, but like in any life, there were problems,” said Fiske. “When his wife died in 1876, in her obit it mentioned that her husband had become a ‘worthless vagabond.’ It’s hard to say exactly what happened to him, but she had her own good career as a cook. They were evidently separated, either by necessity, because of his traveling or by preference. Which, we can’t say for sure.”

“For some reason, he evidently became estranged from his family, but there’s no clear evidence what happened to him later in life,” said Papson. “There are many stories of slaves escaping to freedom but not that many of a free man being abducted into slavery and then getting his freedom back. I wish we knew more about his later life, and I wish we had a script of the play. What we do know is that he was a smart man with an incredible memory.”

Descendants gather

One of the highlights of each Solomon Northup Day is the reunion of his descendents. On Saturday, Moore expects there to be close to 40 on hand, hailing from parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. “Most of them didn’t know each other, but now they have a Facebook page that keeps them all connected,” said Moore. “A few knew the story, but Solomon Northup is a man who represents a lot of black people who, like Ralph Ellison said, feel like they’re invisible. I’m not doing this just for Solomon Northup. I’m doing it for all the black people who have felt invisible at times in their lives. That’s why it’s important we remember his story.”

Also scheduled to make presentations are Paul and Mary Liz Stewart of the Underground Railroad Project of the Capital Region; culinary historian Tonya Hopkins, who will speak about Northup’s wife, Ann Hampton Northup; and local author L. Lloyd Stewart, who recently wrote “The Mysterious Black Migration: 1800-1820,” about the history of blacks in Washington County.

To help honor Northup, who was a talented fiddler, local fiddler Frank Orsini and banjo player Dan Hubbs will perform.

 

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