Friday, November 22, 2013

12 Years a Slave 160 Years Later

After we watched the superb film 12 Years a Slave yesterday evening (if you haven't seen it…GO!), I spent this morning delving deeper into Solomon Northup's life as well as a variety of other aspects of the movie.

Here's what I've learned:

Descendants of Solomon Northup

McQueen was just finishing up a post-screening Q-and-A with "12 Years a Slave" actors Chiwetel Ejifor and Lupita Nyong'o when he was informed a special guest was in the audience.  Her name: Evelyn Jackson and, McQueen was told, she is a descendant of Northup, the man on whose memoirs McQueen's film is based.
I said, 'We've got an important announcement, please. This lady here is a direct descendant of Solomon Northup. "The crowd erupted. It was a standing ovation. Tears -- she was in tears. She goes, 'I need a hug!' So we embraced. It was just one of those -- I have goose pimples talking about it now. It was just one of those things where the film and the actual reality came together. So it was just -- yeah, it was magic."
Evelyn Jackson and Steve McQueen
From Saratoga Springs Visitor Center...
In 1999, in recognition of his life’s work, his ordeal and that of other African-Americans, native Saratogian, Renee Moore, founded “Solomon Northup Day – A Celebration of Freedom”. 
An historical marker was placed by the City of Saratoga Springs on Broadway at the side entrance of the Visitor Center marking the point of abduction.
Northup descendants from four states have attended the event over the years including, matriarch Victoria Northup Linzy Dunham who lived to age 98. 
Descendants of Solomon Northup in 1999
In 2002, the Saratoga Springs City Council proclaimed the third Saturday in July to be annually recognized as “Solomon Northup Day” and the “Celebration of Freedom” event is held at the Heritage Area Visitor Center every July.

Historical Locations in and near Washington, DC

Just as in the movie, the slave pen in which Northup was held was within sight of the U.S. Capitol. It was located on the site of what is now the FAA headquarters at 600 Independence Ave NW (across the street from the Air and Space Museum).

A slave market from which Northup was likely sold still stands in Old Town Alexandria at 1315 Duke St. It is now a museum and the headquarters of the Northern Virginia Urban League.

The Williams slave pen in Washington, DC was located here
From WUSA CBS...

Adherence to the Novel

As with most films adapted from a novel, there are several things that stray a bit from the book. Nonetheless, overall the film adhered fairly close to the narrative that Solomon Northup wrote.  An article from Slate touches upon several of the deviations.

A poignant scene from the film as originally written by Solomon Northup via Louisiana Tech...
"Good-bye, master." 
"Ah! you d——d nigger," muttered Epps, in a surly, malicious tone of voice, "you needn't feel so cussed tickled — you ain't gone yet — I'll see about this business at Marksville to-morrow." 
I was only a "nigger" and knew my place, but felt as strongly as if I had been a white man, that it would have been an inward comfort, had I dared to have given him a parting kick. 
On my way back toward the carriage, Patsey ran from behind a cabin and threw her arms about my neck. 
"Oh! Platt," she cried, tears streaming down her face, "you're goin' to be free — you're goin' way off yonder where we'll neber see ye any more. You've saved me a good many whipping, Platt; I'm glad you're goin' to be free — but oh! de Lord, de Lord! what'll become of me?" 
I disengaged myself from her, and entered the carriage. The driver cracked his whip and away we rolled. I looked back and saw Patsey, with drooping head, half reclining on the ground; Mrs. Epps was on the piazza; Uncle Abram, and Bob, and Wiley, and Aunt Phebe stood by the gate, gazing after me. I waved my hand, but the carriage turned a bend of the bayou, hiding them from my eyes forever.
The entire text of 12 Years a Slave is available via Louisiana Tech

The Real Samuel Bass

From The Spec
Morris and other descendants say they are only now discovering details about Bass, who left Canada sometime around 1840 and took on a series of carpentry jobs throughout the United States. 
It turns out that other aspects of his life were not so honourable — census records show he left behind a wife, Catherine Lydia Lane, and four daughters: Catherine, Hannah, Martha Maria and Zeruah Bass, says Bonnie Gaylord of the Grenville County Historical Society in Prescott, Ont. 
...John Pamplin Wadill's diary also offers clues to why Bass left his family. 
"He had been separated from his wife for 12 or 15 years," Wadill states in an entry dated Aug. 30, 1953, which also lists Bass's wife's name as Lydia Catlin Lane. "His only complaint against her was that she had such a temper as to preclude any man from living with her." 
The diary also raises the possibility that Bass may have had a second family in Louisiana, says Fiske. The diary notes Bass died of pneumonia at the home of a free woman of colour in Marksville, La., named Justine Tounier. It says Bass passed away Aug. 30, 1853, just months after Northup regained his freedom. 
"I suspect that there was a relationship (with Tounier) but the diary doesn't say," says Fiske, adding he also discovered the death record of a woman who appears to list Bass and Tounier as parents.

The Epps Plantation

Edwin Epps was Northup's fourth and final slave owner. Northup was a slave on Epps' plantation for ten years and remembers him as having a "sharp, inquisitive expression" and "manners [that were] repulsive and coarse." In 1845 Epps purchased the roughly 300 acre plantation. 1850 U.S. Federal Census Slave Schedules show he owned 8 slaves between the ages of 40 and 11, six males, one of whom was Northup, and two females. In 1852 Solomon began work on the house on this property. During this construction he met Samuel Bass, a Canadian carpenter.  
The Edwin Epps House was originally located along the banks of Bayou Boeuf on Carl Hunt Road off of Highway 1176 outside of Bunkie.
The Epps Plantation was located here

Epps House in 1976 before it was moved
It was moved into Bunkie in 1976 for the purpose of becoming a museum, however, it was later purchased by LSU-Alexandria and is currently on the campus operating as a museum.  

Epps house after it was moved to the campus of LSU-Alexandria and refurbished
Epps Plantation as it looks now
From Civil War Album...
We were told the [Epps] home escaped being torched, like the rest, by Union troops because some of the New York soldiers had read the book Twelve Years A Slave by Solomon Northup who was a slave of the Epp's Family. The house is now located near the site of the Chambers Plantation which was destroyed by Union troops and fought over in May 1864.

An Earlier Gordon Parks Adaptation

In 1984, Gordan Parks made a movie for PBS based on 12 Years a Slave.

Gordon Parks' 1984 adaptation of Northup's memoirs, "Solomon Northup's Odyssey," -- which aired on PBS as part of its American Playhouse series -- starred Avery Brooks in the title role, as a free man of color living in New York state who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. 

History is Silent

From the WSJ
The available evidence suggests that after his freedom, Northup’s life was anything but quiet and contemplative. Indeed, his final years are a bona fide mystery, even today, with a string of tantalizing clues. 
His last public sighting mentioned in a newspaper was in 1857, only four years after his freedom. 
Empathetic to the plight of slaves, documents show Northup almost certainly joined the Underground Railroad after his freedom— an illegal and extremely dangerous line of work, something that would sate his notable desire for adventure. He became a prolific speaker, joining Frederick Douglass and other major abolitionists in addressing Northeast audiences eager to hear his story first-hand. He also became a property owner in Glens Falls, N.Y. 
But despite all the newfound fame and purpose he found, money woes plagued him. In 1854, lenders foreclosed on his property. Other creditors won judgments against him over failure to repay loans he incurred, possibly to finance his speaking trips or assist slaves. A play he wrote (and starred in) based on the book had been a flop. 
Many believed his two kidnappers, driven by revenge for their trial, murdered Northup, but that fate is dismissed by the historians as “not credible.” Another possibility that he was kidnapped a second time is also noted, but dismissed. 
There are a few convincing theories on Northup’s final years. One is that Northup “died destitute, far from family and friends, perhaps under tragic circumstances,” the historians write. There is evidence he could have even “given up, resorted to drink, or sunk below the surface.” Or he may have gone to live with his daughter in Virginia. Clues are scarce. 
For all their research, Solomon Northup’s final days are a mystery still. 

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