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Local groups expect ‘12 Years’ spotlight

March 4, 2014
Updated 12:15 p.m.
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This image released by Fox Searchlight shows Chiwetel Ejofor in a scene from "12 Years A Slave."
This image released by Fox Searchlight shows Chiwetel Ejofor in a scene from "12 Years A Slave."

A previous version of this story incorrectly listed Solomon Northup’s hometown. According to Northup’s biography, “12 Years a Slave,” he was born in Minerva, in Essex County.

CAPITAL REGION — The film “12 Years a Slave” won big at the Oscars, so fresh eyes will likely be trained on the Capital Region, where its main character was raised.

Community leaders said they hope the interest will offer opportunities to educate the public.

Based on Solomon Northup’s autobiography, the film tells how the black man was abducted and sold into slavery in 1841 and subsequently liberated.

The motion picture earned three Academy Awards — best picture, best supporting actress and best adapted screenplay.

According to Paul McCarty, Fort Edward’s town and village historian, Northup grew up in Fort Edward and spent time living in Saratoga Springs.

Banners bearing Northup’s name could soon be waving from lampposts in Fort Edward.

“He is our native son. He is one of the most important people now, known, you might say, even worldwide because of the exposure of this film,” said McCarty, who is encouraging village officials to invest in the banners.

Northup reportedly grew up not far from the Old Fort House Museum in Fort Edward, where McCarty said his story has been shared since 1975.

“When he was married, he actually rented a room or rooms in the [fort] house,” he noted.

McCarty said he has a feeling the success of “12 Years a Slave” will boost attendance when the museum reopens this summer and hopes it will also generate interest in the historical society’s free, in-classroom presentations on Northup. The programs are offered for grades two and up in schools in Saratoga, Warren and Washington counties.

In 1999, an historical marker was placed by the city of Saratoga Springs on Broadway at the side entrance of the city’s visitor center. According to the center’s website, the sign marks where Northup was lured away and abducted. It reads: Solomon Northup — born 1808 a free man. Lured from Saratoga, kidnapped and sold into slavery, 1841; rescued, 1853. Author, “Twelve Years a Slave.”

Todd Shimkus, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, predicted that there will be more people posing for pictures beneath that sign now that Northup’s story is so widely known.

“The long-term value is that it’s going to be a lot easier for us to communicate that history, that story, because of ‘12 Years a Slave’ winning the awards. Just mentioning ‘12 Years a Slave’ in a sentence is automatically going to bring to light for everybody at least a little piece of that story and its history, and Saratoga’s significance in that history,” he said.

Saratoga Springs Mayor Joanne Yepsen said the city plans to erect a plaque to display at the visitor center “to give Solomon Northup the recognition that he so deserves.”

For the past 15 years, Solomon Northup Day has been celebrated in the city. The event, initiated by Saratoga Springs resident Renee Moore, is held the third Saturday in July. It brings together Northup’s descendants from around the country and many others as well.

Last year’s celebration, held at Skidmore College, was attended by Lupita Nyong’o, winner of this year’s Oscar for best supporting actress for her role in “12 Years a Slave.” Attendees filled the college’s 250-seat Filene Recital Hall.

Moore said she believes this year’s event will draw even more people thanks to the publicity generated by the Oscars.

“I think the awards will bring more attention to the autobiography and more attention to the descendents, and I’m hoping that it increases the attendance by the Saratoga community, and particularly that the African-American community will come out and embrace it as well, because they have a story to tell. There has been more than just Solomon’s story here,” she said.

The 2014 Solomon Northup Day will again be held at Skidmore, jointly managed by the college’s Black Faculty and Staff Group and the Office of the Dean of Special Programs.

“Skidmore is very pleased to continue and build on Renee Moore’s important work in creating this Saratoga tradition. We think that over time, the event can attract not only more attention from the public, but also from history scholars worldwide,” said Skidmore’s Dean of Special Programs Paul Calhoun, in a news release.

Moore said she wrote a letter to the production company for “12 Years a Slave” asking officials to donate film props for a permanent exhibit on Northup’s life, which she said would be housed at the Saratoga Springs History Museum. She is still waiting for a response.

“Maybe they would even want to chip in some of their funds to make sure there is an exhibit here in Saratoga,” she said.

 
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