“Having been born a freeman, and for more than thirty years enjoyed the blessings of liberty in a free State — and having at the end of that time been kidnapped and sold into Slavery, where I remained, until happily rescued in the month of January, 1853, after a bondage of twelve years — it has been suggested that an account of my life and fortunes would not be uninteresting to the public.”
So begins the autobiography of Solomon Northup’s ordeal as a free man abducted into slavery in the south.
On Saturday, the Filene Recital Hall at Skidmore College was packed with people to celebrate the 16th annual Solomon Northup Day and to learn more about the local legend himself.
Solomon Northup was a free African-American man who was abducted and sold as a slave. The movie “12 Years a Slave” is based on his autobiography, which detailed the horror he experienced during his years in captivity.
“He had the American dream in 1841, and it was taken away from him,” said Northup’s great-great-great granddaughter Vera Jackson-Williams, who was at the event. She founded the Solomon Northup Foundation in November to further educate people about her famous relative and to keep his story alive.
Jackson-Williams was around 13 when she read the autobiography for the first time. By then, she knew that Northup was related to her. Reading his words, she said she was struck by how awful people were during the days of slavery.
“When I picked it up, I wouldn’t put it down,” she said.
Northup Day was founded by Renee Moore in 1999. Moore lives in Saratoga Springs, and after seeing an exhibition on Northup’s life at Union College in the same year, she wanted to tell his story for the people in her own community.
“It’s important to honor our ancestors and to understand our cumulative history,” she explained. “It’s American history and we all need to know the truth about our history.”
This year was the first time Skidmore College organized the event, which included a panel discussion on slave history and a keynote address by David Blight, a Civil War historian, Yale professor and director of Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition.
Blight spoke about memory and the need for people to confront the past. He quoted luminaries such as Frederick Douglass, William Faulkner and James Baldwin as part of his argument about the importance of learning from the past.
Justin Dixon Northup Gilliam, the great-great-great-great grandson of Solomon Northup and Jackson-Williams’ son, was also at Skidmore.
“He was my subject for every African-American history report I did growing up,” said Gilliam, who is also the Executive Director of IT for the Northup Foundation.
“To be honest, he is an inspiration,” he later added, explaining that Northup was someone who suffered but kept his faith and his determination to be free again.
Gilliam’s 4-year-old daughter was with him at the event. She’s still too young to read the book or see the whole movie, but Gilliam plans to tell her the complete story of her ancestor when he feels that she can handle it.
“She’ll probably show me when she’s ready,” he said.