Trio rushes to add chapter to Solomon Northup story
Solomon Northup’s story has been told before. Why, he even wrote his own autobiography. But for lovers of 19th century history who want to read the whole story, Cliff Brown, David Fiske and Rachel Seligman have written a book called “Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave.”
The project was hurried to make sure that the book was out by the time a film based on Northup’s story, “12 Years a Slave,” gets released on Nov. 1 in the Capital Region. The three joined forces in May of 2012 and finished the book in January — minus a few tweaks and some minor rewrites, and the book was published on Aug. 31. But all three have long been familiar with the story of Northup, a free black man who was living in Saratoga Springs in 1841 before he was kidnapped into slavery for 12 years.
Brown is a political science professor from Union College who has co-authored several books, including “Campaign of Ideas” about John Anderson’s presidential run in 1980. Seligman is former director of the Mandeville Gallery at the Nott Memorial at Union and is now an associate director for curatorial affairs at Skidmore College’s Tang Museum. Fiske, a Ballston Spa resident, is a former state librarian who wrote an earlier book on Northup that came out in January of 2012, “Solomon Northup: His Life Before and After Slavery.”
“David was the one who kept pushing us to get done before the film,” said Brown, referring to Hollywood’s version of the story written by John Ridley and directed by Steve McQueen. “That was the impetus to getting it done so quickly. We wanted to make sure it was done by the time the movie came out.”
Brown had previously done a couple of scholarly articles on Northup, after being introduced to the story by Seligman back in 1999.
“She asked me if I had ever heard the story of Solomon Northup, and I said, ‘no,’ ” said Brown. “She said it was a great story and thought we should have an exhibit about him at Union, and after I got a hold of the book and read it I said, ‘Yes, we should certainly do an exhibit.’ It’s a remarkable story.”
Union College had plenty of connections to the story, the strongest being the collaboration between Northup and 1840 Union College grad David Wilson, an attorney who helped Northup write the autobiography that came out soon after his return to Saratoga in 1853. Also, it was William Seward (Union Class of 1820) who was governor of New York when the state Legislature enacted, with Seward’s sponsorship, legislation that enabled kidnapped slaves to regain their freedom.
“The governor passed legislation in 1840, and while there were initial inquiries made about Solomon’s whereabouts, his name had been changed,” explained Brown, who lives in Guilderland. “It wasn’t until 1852, when he was finally able to communicate again with his friends in Saratoga, that things started happening again for him. Then, in January of 1853 he is reunited with his family.”
Following the initial exhibit at the Mandeville Gallery, Brown continued to look into Northup’s history and got his students involved on a trip to Washington, which is where Northup, after being tricked to head south, was kidnapped.
“We spent some time in D.C. looking into the city directories and local historical groups, all the various locations and places he mentions in his autobiography,” said Brown. “We spent a fair amount of time trying to reconstruct exactly what happened when he was kidnapped.”
Brown grew up in Providence, R.I., and went to Harvard University, where he earned a doctorate in government.
“I almost majored in history instead of political science,” he said. “History has always been important to me, and I think in many ways I’m a historian at heart. I enjoy doing the research, and there are still things we could find out about Solomon Northup. We still don’t know what happened to him.”
The historical record loses track of Northup soon after the Civil War.
“Our best guess is that he died sometime between 1870 and 1876, but we really don’t know,” said Brown. “It’s annoying, and we speculate in the book about how he may have moved out west, but we just don’t know.”
Brown, Fiske and Seligman will all be at the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza on Thursday from 7 to 9 p.m. to sign copies of their book.