Celebrating the life of an ancestor who was a “12 Years A Slave”

This past summer, Vera Williams attended her annual family reunion and Solomon Northup Day. The day honors her great-great-great grandfather, Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and forced into slavery in 1841. When Northup escaped, he wrote a book about his experiences and—most shockingly for that era—took his kidnappers to trial. The book was recently made into the movie 12 Years A Slave.

Solomon Northup Day was founded by Rene Moore, a local citizen of Saratoga Springs, NY, and has been celebrated for the past 15 years. Williams has helped organize family attendance to the events and manages a Facebook page for Solomon Northup Family and Friends. Relatives come together from across the country—including Williams’s own mother, who was honored this year as Northup’s oldest living descendant.

William fholding a first edition of "12 Years a Slave," written by her great-great-great-grandfather Solomon Northup. Williams purchased the book from Lyrical Bookstore in Silver Springs where she was attending the 15-year celebration of Solomon Northup Day.
Williams, center, holding a first edition of 12 Years a Slave, written by her great-great-great-grandfather Solomon Northup. Williams purchased the book from Lyrical Bookstore in Saratoga Springs, NY, where she was attending Solomon Northup Day.Vera Williams has worked at the National Archives since 2010, but she had no idea that records documenting her family history were in her workplace.

This year, the attendees included film executives, actress Lupita Nyong’o, and other representatives from the movie 12 Years A Slave. Moore had contacted Fox Searchlight Pictures to tell them about the annual celebration, and in turn the film company reached out to Williams to let her know they were doing screenings around country.

Guests at the Solomon Northup Day celebration in July were shown a trailer of the movie and comments from various people associated with the film including director Steve McQueen. Williams had the opportunity to speak with Nyong’o about her experience playing a slave. “She teared up and said it was the hardest role she had ever played,” said Williams.

For Williams, the story of her ancestor has been part of her life since she was young; her mother was given a copy of the book by her grandmother. Even now, she thinks about what it must have been like for Northup as a free man in the North to suddenly become a slave in the South. Williams notes that it was very different to live in that time knowing about slavery, but believing it happened only to other people.

“We can all relate to being 30 something, doing what we want, when we want—it is called freedom,” said Williams. “Solomon Northup had that freedom and the American Dream. He was a free man with a family and home, he was self employed. Then to have that freedom taken away—how you endure and become the person you need to be to survive?” she wonders.

Some of Northup’s experience is documented in Williams’s own workplace, the National Archives. Northup and his family appear in the 1840 Federal census under the category “Free Colored Persons.” One year later, Northup—now called Plat Hamilton—is listed in the slave manifest for the brig Orleans.

Brig Orleans
The slave manifest for the brig Orleans includes Solomon Northup, listed as Plat Hamilton (#33).

Although she joined the National Archives four years ago, she only recently became interested in the records. As an IT specialist, she was “thinking more systems not content,” she notes. But there may be more documentation of Williams’s own story still to be found in the National Archives. The men who kidnapped Northup were brought to trial, but the case was dismissed, as blacks were not allowed to sue whites in the 1850s. With the help of fellow staff members, Williams is now hunting for these court records. Little is known about the end of Northup’s life—he disappeared, leaving only speculation about his death and burial.

Other mysteries remain. Williams is descended from Alonzo Northup, one of Solomon’s three children, but her family does not know much about the other two children, Elizabeth and Margret. “It’s one of my goals to find out what I can about them and share the information with the family,” says Williams.

2 thoughts on “Celebrating the life of an ancestor who was a “12 Years A Slave”

  1. You can also find the slave holdings of Edwin Epps in the Marksville, Louisiana slave census of 1850. Slaves are not named, but by description, Solomon Northup is the first slave listed.
    The archives of ft. Worth, where the Northup document was found, is now scanning and digitizing all the slave manifests that came through New Orleans so that some day, people can hunt for their descendants; slaves, slave owners and ship masters.

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