01/04 – Solomon Northup

A drawing from an early edition of “12 Years a Slave”. (Wikimedia Commons)

On this day in 1853, Solomon Northup – a Black, free-born American from New York – regained his freedom after 12 years of illegal enslavement. Having worked as a violinist and farmer in the Northern states (where slavery was illegal), Northup travelled to Washington, DC, for work in 1841. Soon after his arrival, Northup made some new friends, who ended up drugging and kidnapping him. Northup was then sold to James H. Birch, a local slave dealer, for $650 ($19,216.69 if adjusted for inflation). Birch brought the kidnapped Northup south to Louisiana, where he was worked nearly to death and viciously abused by his various owners.

By 1852, Northup had been in captivity for nearly 12 years, and his family still had no idea what had happened to him. But a Canadian carpenter with abolitionist views named Samuel Bass came to work on the same plantation as Northup that year and, appalled by Northup’s story, began writing letters to the New York Legislature. An attorney by the name of Henry B. Northup (a distant relative of Solomon) travelled to Louisiana, where he confronted Northup’s then-owner, a horrifically abusive man named Edwin Epps. After some argument, Epps reluctantly handed Northup over to the attorney.

Solomon Northup regained his freedom on January 4th, 1853, and joined his shocked family in New York soon after. Many of the men involved with Northup’s kidnapping were charged, but all were acquitted. Northup’s memoir, titled 12 Years a Slave, meticulously detailed his horrendous treatment at the hands of his masters and helped dispel many myths about the supposedly “comfortable” existence of slaves in the American South. It also revealed just how much the Southern economy truly relied on slaves, and how so much of Southern culture revolved around their free labour. Although Northup was far from the only free Black person to be kidnapped for the slave market, his experience helped galvanize the abolitionist movement in the United States which resulted in the 13th Amendment, or the abolition of slavery, in the early 1860s.

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