Q&A: Photographer Mealy has eye for history, ability to re-enact it

Clifford Oliver Mealy has done enough research to detail a countless number of horror stories relati

Clifford Oliver Mealy has done enough research to detail a countless number of horror stories relating to the history of slavery in America.

Underground Railroad Conference

For more information on the three-day Underground Railroad Conference at the College of Saint Rose, click here.

However, at next weekend’s seventh annual Underground Railroad History Conference at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, Mealy will be recounting one of slavery’s more uplifting stories — the saga of Solomon Northup. A free black man from Saratoga Springs, Northup was kidnapped into slavery while visiting friends in Washington, D.C. That’s the bad news. The good news is that Henry B. Northup, a white man and the son of the man who owned Solomon’s father before slavery was outlawed in New York, went to great lengths to secure Solomon’s freedom and restore him to his family and friends.

Northup’s story

Mealy, a retired photographer for New York state parks whose pictures are part of the “Expressions in Blue” exhibition at the New York State Museum, will focus on Henry B. Northup’s story for his presentation Saturday at 3:15 p.m. A re-enactor for more than 10 years, Mealy has performed as Solomon Northup and Frederick Douglass throughout the Capital Region, and has also given presentations from the slaves’ viewpoint, including Prince at the Schuyler Mansion in Albany, and Jack at the Mabee Farm in Rotterdam Junction.

A Brooklyn native, Mealy lives in Greenwich with his wife, Wendy Liberatore, a reporter for the Gazette, and their son, Clark.

For more information on the three-day Underground Railroad Conference at Saint Rose, check out the Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region. Its Web site is www.ugrworkshop.com.

Q: Why did you decide to do a presentation on Henry B. Northup?

A: He was a Union College graduate, and he knew the governor personally. So he was obviously a very well-connected individual. He knew a number of people of influence, but he was also Solomon’s childhood friend, and when Solomon was stolen into slavery, he did everything he could to get Solomon freed. It was Henry B. who personally went down South and physically brought Solomon back up North. Here’s a man who’s a lawyer and a county clerk, a very prominent man, whose family wasn’t really known as abolitionists, but he does the right thing. It’s a great story.

Q: When did you first hear the story of Solomon Northup and his book, “Twelve Years a Slave?”

A: I first heard about him back in the late ’60s when the black movement was starting. It’s one of the greatest stories of slavery in America, second only to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and it’s a true story. He was a free man, an educated man, who wrote a book telling his story that was also a best seller. I’m finding out only recently that it was Henry B. Northup who encouraged Solomon to write his book.

Q: When did you seriously begin researching black history?

A: About 10 years ago I was volunteering at the library in Greenwich, and I was astonished to find out how much black history there was in this community. Our librarian suggested I do a black history program, and then the Stevens family commissioned me to do a family portrait and while we were setting up for it I noticed on their mantel they had a picture of Frederick Douglass. I asked them where they got it, and Mrs. Stevens kind of puffed up her chest and proudly announced that her great-grandmother was a friend of Frederick Douglass. Evidently, one of her best friends was Douglass’ second wife, who was a white woman.

The more I looked into Greenwich’s history and its connection to black history, the more fascinating it became.

Q: When did you get into re-enacting?

A: Well, we are highly sought after, it’s true, but I knew re-enactors long before I became one because I took a lot of photographs of them while I was working for the state. They were wonderful photo subjects, and as they got to know me they began to recruit me. They were adamant that blacks be included in the portrayal of history, and I’ll never forget what Paul Stillman, a Native American re-enactor, told me. He said, “Don’t let some white guy dressed up in blackface interpret your history for you. It’s your history. You have to do it.”

Q: What in your research about black history surprised you the most?

A: You read any newspaper from back then and see what people did to each other, and then you remember it was all legal. Slavery said that you owned somebody. So whatever you wanted to do with that person, you could. I also learned that some slaves lived pretty well. Prince at the Schuyler Mansion or Jack at the Mabee Farm lived pretty well and not just for slaves. They lived well for human beings. And, it wasn’t just blacks that were in slavery. Three-quarters of the world was in bondage to somebody, and that’s covering all races. It was the condition of man. A lot of black people want to avoid looking at it, but a lot of blacks got into slavery because of other blacks.

Q: Why did you get into photography?

A: When I was a kid, I was more interested in drawing and painting, but my skill couldn’t match my vision. I got introduced to photography in the Navy and it seemed like a pretty good fit. Photographs are testimony to truth. We human beings are visual creatures, and we tend to believe what we see. If you look at a photo, you believe it. And whether it’s manipulated or staged, that’s secondary to your initial reaction. A picture is worth a thousand words.

Categories: Life and Arts

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