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Solomon Northup

Local tale of slavery finds national spotlight

Friday, October 18, 2013
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Solomon Northup


Chiwetel Ejofor stars as Solomon Northup in "12 Years A Slave."
Chiwetel Ejofor stars as Solomon Northup in "12 Years A Slave."

— There’s plenty of Oscar buzz for the new movie “12 Years a Slave,” and if the film is as good as expected, Underground Railroad sites in the Northeast might see an increase in their attendance figures next summer.

Mary Liz Stewart, co-director of the Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region with her husband, Paul, said the saga of Saratoga Springs resident Solomon Northup, his abduction into slavery in 1841 and subsequent return to freedom is a remarkable story well worth telling.

“I really think a movie like this will go a long way to elevate awareness of our story,” said Stewart, whose group is hosting a screening of the movie at 6 p.m. Monday at Spectrum 8 Theatres in Albany. “Film is a great way to engage people who might not read a book or listen to a lecture. I think this could have a real impact and contribute to people becoming more knowledgeable about the details of this history.”

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The Underground Railroad History Project, which has its headquarters on the campus of Russell Sage College in Troy, owns the Stephen and Harriet Myers Residence on Livingston Avenue in Albany. It was a prominent stop on the Underground Railroad during the first half of the 19th century.

“It’s currently being restored and under construction, so we can’t have the front door open at 9 a.m. every day,” said Stewart. “But we make ourselves available to host programs and small groups that want to see the place.”

The Myers Residence is one of the few locations in upstate New York relating to the Underground Railroad that is open to the public. Most of the sites, while they may have historic markers, remain private homes.

In Washington County, one of the public locations is the Old Fort Museum in Fort Edward, owned and operated by the Fort Edward Historical Society. One of the rooms in the house is dedicated to Northup, who moved into the home sometime around 1828, after his marriage.

“We are part of the story and one of the places he specifically mentions in his book,” said Fort Edward town and village historian Paul McCarty, referring to the autobiography Northup published in 1853. “He has a strong connection to Fort Edward and to Washington County.”

The buzz surrounding the movie this summer may have attracted more visitors to the Old Fort Museum this year, according to McCarty, and he’s hopeful the trend continues.

“Our visitorship was up this summer, and we’re hopeful about next year, too,” he said. “We like to say how ‘George Washington slept here twice,’ and now we’re going to have to say, ‘Solomon Northup was here for probably two years.’ ”

The Northup exhibit at the Fort Edward museum is not a big one.

“Organizations like ours don’t have a lot of money,” said McCarty. “I stumbled upon the story a long time ago, maybe as far back as 1975, and then I began to look into it more. When we got some money to make some changes with the house during our restoration effort, we decided to tell the story of Solomon Northup. The only real artifact we have in the room is the walking stick of Henry B. Northup, but we tell the story and give people an idea of what his life was like.”

Henry B. Northup is the man whose father had freed Solomon Northup’s father earlier in the century. Henry Northup traveled to Louisiana to bring Solomon Northup back to New York in 1853, ending his years of captivity. In the movie, Henry Northup’s role is overlooked.

Missing characters

Written by John Ridley and directed by Steve McQueen, the film stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup. Also in the cast are Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alfre Woodard, Paul Giamatti and Sarah Paulson. According to the Internet Movie Database, nowhere in the cast is there an actor playing Henry B. Northup.

“I haven’t seen it yet, but sometimes you have to streamline a character for the movie, and from an artistic point of view, sometimes those things are necessary,” said Skidmore College’s Rachel Seligman, who recently completed a book on Northup, “Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave,” with Cliff Brown of Union College and former state librarian David Fiske.

“As a historian, I don’t like it when the facts get changed, but I understand it. If it’s a good piece of filmmaking, like I hear it us, then I guess that can be forgiven.”

At the North Star Underground Railroad Museum in Ausable Chasm, Clinton County, founder Don Papson thinks the movie will have an impact on attendance.

“Millions of people who had never heard the story are now going to hear it,” Papson said, “so I think it will definitely help us draw more people. The movie may not be exactly true to the story, but, from what I’ve seen of the trailers, it looks like a very powerful rendering, and in terms of atmosphere and authenticity, I think it does a great job.”

An exhibit on Northup is part of what visitors see at Papson’s museum just west of Plattsburgh.

“We have a panel on him and an image. And while we have a lot of stories to tell in a small space, Solomon Northup’s story is one we certainly have to tell,” Papson said. “He belongs to the North Country. He was born in Minerva [in Essex County] and grew up in Washington County. And after he returned home to Saratoga Springs, he was involved in the Underground Railroad.”

Fiske, who published his own book on Northup before joining forces with Seligman and Brown on the new project, has already noticed a distinct increase in interest and awareness of the story. Fiske maintains a website, http://solomonnorthup.com, which tells the story of Northup’s life.

“The hits on my website have gone up five- to tenfold since the announcement of the movie and the trailers came out,” said Fiske. “I think the movie will have a huge impact.”

Solomon Northup Day, held annually since 1999 in Saratoga Springs, was rejuvenated by the news of the movie this summer and even saw cast members make an appearance at the event at Skidmore College. Fiske, Brown and Seligman were all part of the festivities, while Papson and the Stewarts also made presentations.

“[Movie studio] Fox Searchlight developed a longer trailer to share with the group at Solomon Northup Day, and it looks like the film is going to be a phenomenal retelling of a great story,” said Mary Liz Stewart. “It looks like a great deal of effort went into telling the story in as accurate a manner as possible.”

Local screenings

Fox Searchlight is sponsoring Monday night’s viewing at the Spectrum, as well as a sold-out Wednesday night showing at Saratoga Springs’ BowTie Criterion Cinema. While there is no charge to view the movie Monday night, reservations are required. The Underground Railroad Project will be holding a post-screening fundraiser at My Linh Restaurant, just a few doors down from the theaters on Delaware Avenue.

The movie opened Friday in select theaters around the country and will open in the Capital Region on Nov. 1.

“I’m looking forward to seeing the movie, but I think we’re going to need Ken Burns to show up and do the ‘true’ story,” said McCarty, referring to the documentary filmmaker. “Something like that would be great.”

 
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