Adirondack Journal — Kidnapped in Northern New York
February is Black History Month. 2009 represents a truly unique and inspiring year in black history that demonstrates how far we have come as a nation.
In January, Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States of America was sworn into office, with a message of change and hope. While the meaning of his message was largely directed towards the political system, it can also be applied socially more broadly. It is evident that Obama's presence in office also represents a positive change in race relations in a country with a long negative history that began with slavery and moved to racism, and segregation.
This history is also true for New York State and the Adirondack region. It is a proud moment to reflect on progress made but we should also remember those who struggled and suffered to get us here.
New York abolished slavery in 1827. However, the state was not rid of those who believed in profiting from the selling of human lives. Free black men and women had to remain cautious of kidnappers. Hired slave hunters who sought fugitive slaves for return to the south continued to threaten the freedom the North represented.
While kidnapping of free blacks was less common in northern New York because of its distance from Southern slave states, it did occur as is evident in the story of Solomon Northup.
Solomon Northup was born free in the Adirondack town of Minerva, New York in 1808.
While living near Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Northup, then 33, was approached by two men named Brown and Hamilton who offered him work as a musician in a circus. After doing odd jobs at the United States Hotel in Saratoga Springs, this seemed like a lucky opportunity for the fiddle player.
Brown and Hamilton convinced Northup to travel to New York City and work on a show to advertise the circus. From there the pair urged Northup to accompany them to Washington D.C. for the circus job. They purchased papers attesting to Northup's status as a free man for his travel to Washington.
However, Brown and Hamilton did not have as trustworthy motives as Northup believed. The men he thought were friends drugged him while drinking together, took his money and "free" papers. When he awoke, Northup was in chains and being sold into slavery.
Northup's slave name was changed to Platt. A man from Louisiana named William Ford purchased him for nine hundred dollars. Ford was a fair man and the tasks he assigned Northup were quite lenient for slave labor.
However, Ford went bankrupt and sold Northup to a planter named John Tibeats who turned out to be a cruel and harsh master.
On more than one occasion Northup fought off unprovoked attacks by Tibeats, once striking back so forcibly he fled into the swamps to avoid the consequences of an act that could be punished with death. Even the dangerous swamps full of alligators, water moccasins, and wildcats seemed a better option. He miraculously was able to find his way to Ford's plantation seeking shelter.
Unfortunately, Ford was unable to purchase Northup back, but he could intervene and convince the brutal Tibeats to hire him out to less abusive masters. Tibeats eventually sold Northup to a planter named Edwin Epps. This change did little to improve Northup's position. When he wrote of that time, he recollected thinking of escape every day but realizing the attempt would be futile.
Northup was enslaved for twelve years; the final ten with Epps. Northup's luck would turn around in 1853 when Samuel Bass, a white Canadian-born man, came to work for Epps. Bass held unorthodox beliefs about slavery and often lectured his boss about the ills of the system.
In order to avoid beatings, Northup had not told others of his free birth standing. However, he eventually confided this information to Bass. Bass promised Northup his assistance. Four letters were sent to Saratoga Springs on behalf of Northup, requesting that the recipients send his free papers to Louisiana. One of the letters found its way to Northup's wife who brought it to a family friend named Henry Northup, a prominent Fort Edward, N.Y. lawyer.
Henry Northup's last name was no coincidence; he was a long-time friend of the Solomon Northup family. His slave-owning ancestors in Rhode Island had been the masters of Solomon's family and the source of his family name.
Henry Northup was able to obtain affidavits and received support from the governor of New York to retrieve Northup under a law established to recover illegally enslaved free blacks.
The lawyer traveled south but had initial difficulty locating Northup because he did not know to look for "Platt," Northup's slave name. However, by finding Samuel Bass he was finally able to reach Solomon Northup.
Solomon Northup would go on to tell of his experience in the book Twelve Years a Slave, ghostwritten by David Wilson.
The story of Solomon Northup represents just one example of how far this nation has evolved. We are no longer a country that enslaves, and events that could not be imagined even a decade ago have come to pass. While we are slowly chipping away at longstanding discrimination and moving in the right direction, there is still much to be done. Black History Month reminds us of how far we have come, and at the same time how far we have yet to go.
Photo - "Music Has Charms" by Seneca Ray Stoddard.
*This photograph is not a depiction of Solomon Northup.