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Twelve Years a What?

February 10, 2014 by Martha Mastrianni

Chiwetel Ejiofor (far left) as Solomon Northup and Paul Giamatti as a freeman in the 12 Years a Slave film. (Fox Searchlight)

Chiwetel Ejiofor (far left) as Solomon Northup and Paul Giamatti as Theophilus Freeman in the 12 Years a Slave film. (Fox Searchlight)

In 1841, Solomon Northup, a free black man living and working in Saratoga Springs, was tricked and captured by slave traders. He was sold into slavery in Louisiana, where he worked at various plantations. After twelve years and multiple attempts to escape, Northup finally got word to his family, who enlisted the help of the governor of New York to free him. After he returned to Saratoga in 1853, Northup published the memoir Twelve Years a Slave about his experiences.

In 2013, the film Twelve Years a Slave came out, significantly raising awareness of Northup and his struggle. Last year, in anticipation of the movie, Twelve Years A Slave was chosen for Saratoga Reads, an annual community reading event in Saratoga Springs.

On January 24, an article in the Los Angeles Times, written by Steven Zeitchik, claimed that “Solomon Northup’s story is largely unknown in his New York hometown.” On January 31, an article in the Saratogian expressed some citizens’ dismay regarding Zeitchik’s portrayal of their hometown.

When asked about Solomon Northup, S.S.H.S. students’ responses were varied. Some knew nothing, or close to it. When asked who Northup was, Jesse Greenslade ’14 said “I actually don’t know.” Katherine Horne ’14 said “I have no clue who that is.” After hearing Northup’s story, she said, “Wow, that’s crazy.”

Shawn Irish ’17 saw the movie, but still answered with “I don’t know.” When reminded, Irish said “I fell asleep in the beginning of the movie, so I totally missed [Northup’s name].” About the movie, tenth grader Dakota Harvey responded “I didn’t like it. It was scary.”

Some students just needed their memories jogged.

“His name sounds familiar,” said Rachel Brehm ’17. “I think he’s black,” said another freshman. “Wasn’t he a slave?” asked Jack Martin ’16.

Others recalled more. Arlen Barndt-Jackson ’15 recalled: “He started out a free man, and was captured and sold into slavery.”

“He’s on a sign you walk by when you go downtown” said Julie Granger ’16, referring to the historical marker near the visitor’s center, across from Congress Park. Celeste Thomas ’17 remembered that “He got kidnapped and then returned after twelve years.”

For many students, the recent movie was not their first experience with Northup’s story. Danielle Morrone ’16 said that she remembers learning about Northup “through seventh grade social studies.” Dani Epstein ’14 learned about Northup as a Saratoga Reads volunteer last year. Freshmen Molly Gagnon and Caleb Cohen both remember watching an older movie about Northup in seventh grade. Sarice Olson ’14 said that “Mr. Schorpp teaches that in APUSH,” referring to Advanced Placement United States History. And senior Karen Toivonen remembered “a play about him in elementary school.”

Said Mayor Joanne Yepsen in the Saratogian: “The [L.A. Times] article is one viewpoint. I do think it was unfair to the city. We’re all Saratogians and we’re all proud of our history here.”

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