Flashback: The New York Times Posts 1853 Coverage On The Real Solomon Northup

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The Academy Awards was an epic night for “12 Years A Slave.” The emotional film, based on Solomon Northup’s story as a slave then a free man, snagged the “Best Picture” award at the end of the night and co-star Lupita Nyong’o snagged a “Best Supporting Actress” award, but the real lesson in the win is that it wouldn’t have happened without the real Solomon Northup sharing his story.

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Northup  published an account of his experiences in the book “Twelve Years a Slave,” during his first year of freedom in 1853. Following the story’s big win at the Oscars,  The New York Times dug into their archives and posted a copy of an original profile from their Jan. 20, 1853 issue about Northup, a pianist from upstate New York who was kidnapped as a free man in 1841 and sold into slavery. From the film, we at least thought we felt his painful story, but the Times article was vivid in detail about the kidnapping and Northup’s lashings.

While suffering with severe pain some persons came in, and, seeing the condition he was in, proposed to give him some medicine and did so. That is the last thing of which he had any recollection until he found himself chained to the floor of Williams’ slave pen in this city, and handcuffed. In the course of a few hours, James H. Burch, a slave dealer, came in, and the colored man asked him to take the irons off from him, and wanted to know why they were put on. Burch told him it was none of his business. The colored man said he was free and told where he was born. Burch called in a man by the name of Ebenezer Rodbury, and they two stripped the man and laid him across a bench, Rodbury holding him down by his wrists. Burch whipped him with a paddle until he broke that, and then with a cat-o’-nine-tails, giving him a hundred lashes, and he swore he would kill him if he ever stated to anyone that he was a free man.

The article went further in discussing the case and mentioned the 1853 trial against Burch and Rodbury. Considering the era, Northup couldn’t take the stand since Black witnesses weren’t allowed to testify against White defendants. As for the plantation owners, who knew of Northup’s captivity, they were protected from arraignment.

By the laws of Louisiana no man can be punished there for having sold Solomon into slavery wrongfully, because more than two years had elapsed since he was sold; and no recovery can be had for his services, because he was bought without the knowledge that he was a free citizen.

Aside from Northup’s case, the article mentioned a “girl,” which we now know was Patsey (the character Lupita  played in the film) who witnessed his escape.

“When Solomon was about to leave, under the care of Mr. Northrup, this girl came from behind her but, unseen by her master, and throwing her arms around the neck of Solomon congratulated him on his escape from slavery, and his return to his family, at the same time in language of despair exclaiming, ‘But, Oh, God! what will become of me?’”

Although Northup was freed without seeing justice served, the Northup family continues his legacy. Northup’s great grandchildren filmed a featurette for Fox Searchlight, “The Faces of Solomon Northup,” shortly after the film was released.

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