True Story of ’12 Years a Slave’ Protagonist Solomon Northup

solomon northup

One of 2013’s most anticipated films, “12 Years A Slave,” possesses a buzz that is undeniable. While moviegoers and critics alike await the Oct. 18 commercial release of the historical drama, there has been a growing interest in the movie’s central character, Solomon Northup.

Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor steps into the role of Northup, a free Black man who was baited into slavery from upstate New York and later captured in Washington. Based on his actual 1853 autobiography bearing the same name as the film, Northup’s accounts of being enslaved for 12 years has been recognized by historians for its accuracy.

Northup was born to free parents in the town of Minerva in New York in July 1808. Northup’s father Mintus, a former slave, and his mixed-race mother provided him and his older brother, Joseph with an education considered superior to that of their peers. Northup worked alongside his father on a farm, but also an avid reader and learned to play the violin.

Northup would eventually meet and marry Anne Hampton on Christmas Day 1829, a multi-racial woman just like his mother. The couple went on to have three children together: Elizabeth, Margaret, and Alonzo. Taking up the trade his father taught him, Northup and his wife did well enough to move to the job-rich town of Saratoga Springs in 1834.

With his violin skills becoming the talk of lore, Northup was known as one of the best fiddlers in town. That same playing ability helped spark the harrowing ordeal of Northup getting kidnapped and sold into slavery years later.

In 1841, Northup was looking for more work and met two men who claimed to be part of a traveling circus. Eager to earn a decent wage and excited at the opportunity, Northup joined the pair on a trip to New York and was lured into going to Washington with them. Although Northup was born free, slavery was still legal at the time. The men kidnapped, beat and drug Northup before selling him to slave trader James H. Birch.

The men lied to Birch and other authorities, saying that Northup was an escapee from Georgia. After facing physical abuse for saying he was a free man, Northup silenced himself out of fear of being sent to a remote area. In 1843, Northup was sold to Edwin Epps of Bayou Beouf, La., and endured harsh conditions.

Northup’s fortune changed when Canadian carpenter and anti-slavery proponent Samuel Bass visited Bayou Beouf, and the pair established a hidden friendship. With Bass’ help, Northup was able to send word to friends in Saratoga Springs, including attorney Henry B. Northup. The lawyer was a relative of Solomon’s father’s former master, and part of the family that took in Mintus after he was freed. Henry Northup eventually traveled south and brokered a deal that would grant Solomon freedom in 1853.

Bass risked his life and Henry Northup endured threats for assisting in ending the ordeal. The same year of his freedom, Northup published the memoir, “12 Years A Slave,” which culled from a series of letters he wrote while enslaved. The book was a huge success, and became a necessary tool of the abolitionist movement.

The book had wide acclaim, praised for its concise writing and detailed account. Northup would perform lectures for abolitionist audiences, but eventually disappeared from the public eye. It is thought he died in obscurity sometime between 1863 and 1875

Although director Steve McQueen’s movie is based on the accounts found in Northup’s book, this isn’t the first filmed adaptation of the book. Famed filmmaker and photographer Gordon Parks released a PBS television movie titled “Solomon Northup’s Odyssey,” starring Avery Brooks.

“12 Years A Slave,” the film, certainly has the attention of critics, after early screening attendees praised the brutal portrayal of the events during slavery. A recent showing at the New York Film Festival ended with a standing ovation among the celebrities and others in attendance. With early whispers of Oscar nods, Solomon Northup’s story will most certainly gain the attention worthy of its epic arc.

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