I hope we all know this story by now, seeing as this was made into the Academy Award winning film of the same name, the film that some Academy voters never even bothered to watch. I took great issue with that revelation at the time, and it still rankles. Not because of the perverted sanctity of the Academy Award, but because the logic behind not watching the movie in the first place (the subject matter is too difficult to watch) is made worse by the logic in not voting (not wanting to appear insensitive to race relations in America). There is a deep racial divide in this country, and its effects are compounded by the deliberate avoidance of the role we all play in its continuance. If you deliberately avoid understanding where we came from or how we got to this place you are allowing the institutions formed in the crucible of slavery to continue their stranglehold on our way of life. It really is that simple. Racism doesn’t dominate this country because the majority of people hate a small group, it is the silence of otherwise decent people that allows the bigotry of the few to impact so many.
I live in the South. My father’s family emigrated here from England in the middle of the 19th century, and spent the next 100 years trying to create a meager existence as poor farmers in a system built to sustain the wealth of large plantation owners. Near as I can tell, my patrilineal line owned no slaves. But my four-times great grandfather fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, and my father’s maternal line did own slaves. This is a subject which I can not outrun.
Solomon Northup was born a freeman in New York, where he lived and raised a family until 1841. In that year he was drugged, kidnapped, absconded to the South, and sold into slavery. For twelve long years, he toiled in anonymity, mostly to a cruel and petty man, before fortune gifted him with the means of contacting friends capable of assuring his return to freedom. This is a harrowing memoir of great loss, incredible perseverance, and unimaginable tribulation. This is necessary reading.
Familiar to anyone who’s seen the movie, and probably many who haven’t, Northup famously disappears from history in 1857, four short years after returning to his family. Though, it should be stated that the son of a Vermont minister claims (60 years after the fact) that Northup was working to aid slaves fleeing via the Underground Railroad in the early 1860s. As early as 1858, rumors existed that Solomon had been abducted and sold once again into slavery, and the nephew of his benefactor (Henry Northup), John Henry Northup, stated in 1909 that the last he heard of Solomon was that he was lecturing in Boston before disappearing, and that the family assumed he was either kidnapped or killed.
However, some recent scholarship has posited that Northup’s fate may not have been to die a lonely and anonymous death as a slave. Returning to the north after so many years engaged in back-breaking and merciless forced servitude, it’s likely that his health suffered. It’s entirely within the realm of reason, they assert, that he simply died from natural causes. Add to this that at least one of the obituaries written of his wife, who died in 1876, described Solomon’s fate as that of a “worthless vagabond.” In census information, Anne Northup’s marital status isn’t listed as “widow” until 1875. Is that because Solomon Northup had recently died, or because the family had finally given up hope, 10 years after emancipation, of his return?
One thing I’ve found to be generally true is that the earliest you can trace an historical rumor, the more likely it is to be true. Contemporaneous accounts, I think, are more reliable, generally, than later research. While it is somewhat likely that Northup’s health declined after returning to the north, I’m unaware of any contemporary accounts that describe him as ailing. And he was by no means a reclusive figure. He was an abolitionist who not only wrote this memoir, but gave numerous speeches on his experiences as a slave. It seems to me that failing health would’ve been cause for some historical record. Also, his turning to a life of vagrancy, as was reported in one of his wife’s obituaries, seems possible. It’s impossible to imagine the long term effects of his years in bondage, and how that may have manifested later in life. But why would his benefactor’s nephew state that they simply “lost touch” with him, assuming him dead or kidnapped? This same benefactor, it should be stated, was the same Henry Northup who traveled to Louisiana in 1853 to free Solomon from slavery. Is it likely, then, that he would then lose touch with him and never think to investigate?
No. I think Solomon sinking into the despair of vagrancy unlikely given the letter written by Henry Northup’s nephew. I also think ailing health unlikely, given that Solomon was a public figure. Which leaves the tragic likelihood that he was either murdered for publicly describing his kidnappers (and attempting to see, or once again kidnapped and re-sold into slavery before the end of the Civil War.
Solomon Northup was a victim of the Reverse Underground Railroad (at least once in his life), which trafficked free blacks in the North to the South where they were sold as slaves. I have been unable to find even rough estimates of how man men, women and children suffered this fate, but the practice started in the early-19th century (after the importation of slaves was banned in 1808) and lasted until the end of the Civil War. To take just one example, Patty Cannon ran a gang out of Delaware between 1811 and 1826 that kidnapped free blacks to sell in the South. After being captured, she admitted to nearly two dozen murders of free blacks, and an untold number of kidnappings. Given that her enterprise was selling blacks into slavery, it’s unlikely that she killed many of the people she kidnapped. It seems safe to assume that this single woman (and her gang) kidnapped hundreds of free people during their 15 years of operation. To take another concrete example, in just the city of Philadelphia during a two year period in the 1820s, at least 100 black children were kidnapped for sale in the South. They were easy targets because after being in bondage for a few years, where they grow and their bodies change during adolescence, it could be difficult for even family members to recognize them, thereby preventing proof of their earlier kidnapping. It is unknown how many thousands of men, women, and children suffered the same fate of Solomon Northup. How many families never saw the return of their loved ones, or heard tell of their fate.
This kind of history is vital to understanding who we are as a people, because we still carry the scars of this horror with us.