165 years ago today, a slave named Solomon Northup received his freedom.
Solomon hadn’t been born a slave. He was born a freedman in Rhode Island and settled, with his family, in New York. He was a man of many trades, though probably best known as a fiddler. He was 32 when, in 1841, he was kidnapped by two men who, claiming he was a fugitive slave that had been recaptured, sold him into slavery. He spent 12 year separated from his family, working on plantations across the Deep South. It was while he was owned by the cruel (even by the standards of the slave trade) Edwin Epps that Northup met a Canadian carpenter named Samuel Bass. Northup told Bass the truth about his identity and it was with Bass’s help that Solomon Northup was finally reunited with his family. Northup went on to write the memoir 12 Years A Slave and traveled the country, lecturing on abolition.
His later life is a mystery. He vanished in 1857, while on a speaking tour in Canada. At the time, there was speculation that he had once again been abducted and sold into slavery. Others thought that he may have been murdered by pro-slavery partisans. Of course, there were other who said that they met Northup in the 1860s and that he was helping slaves escape to the North during the Civil War. One man, a Rev. Smith, even reported meeting Northup in 1863.
Over a century later, Solomon’s memoir was adapted for the screen. Directed by Steve McQueen, 2013’s 12 Years a Slave was a powerful and haunting film, one that deservedly won the Oscar for best picture of the year. Here’s that moment: