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'12 Years' Is The Story Of A Slave Whose End Is A Mystery

Oct 19, 2013
Originally published on October 21, 2013 11:18 am

There's a true American saga on screens this weekend.

Twelve Years a Slave tells the story of Solomon Northup. He was an African-American musician from New York — a free man, until he was kidnapped in Washington, D.C., and sold into slavery. After an unlikely rescue from a Louisiana cotton plantation, he returned home and wrote a memoir, first published 160 years ago.

But the end of Northup's story is an unsolved mystery that has confounded historians for years.

A Story Brought To Life

Northup was drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery not far from the National Mall in 1841. What is now the Federal Aviation Administration headquarters was once the site of "a slave pen within the very shadow of the Capitol," as Northup described it in his book, which he dictated to writer David Wilson.

Carol Wilson (no relation to David Wilson), a history professor at Maryland's Washington College, has studied hundreds of documented kidnappings of African-Americans before the Civil War. She says Northup's story is unique.

"First of all, that he could spend over a decade in slavery and then still get out — but also that he wrote an account, and it's really one of the most valuable narratives of a slave that we have because he experienced slavery as a free person," she says.

This kind of documentation is rare, says John Ridley, who wrote and produced the new film adaptation of Twelve Years a Slave.

"Even though we think we've seen every slave narrative, the reality is that very few of these stories have really ever been told and brought to life," he says.

The film is a visceral portrayal of the brutality of slavery — so is the book.

"When he's being whipped, you feel it. When he triumphs over something, or pulls a fast one on his owner, you're there with him, too," says Clifford Brown, who teaches at Union College in New York and has co-authored the new biography Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave.

He says Northup's return home in 1853 made headlines. His memoir was published later that year.

His Final Request

After the book came out, Northup hit the lecture circuit, produced two unsuccessful stage plays about his experience and sued his kidnappers. There is also some evidence that he helped fugitive slaves escape through the Underground Railroad.

But by the end of the Civil War, Northup had disappeared from the public record.

"We know where his son is buried. We know where his father is buried. But we don't know where he's buried. It's a mystery," Brown says.

Brown and his co-authors, David Fiske and Rachel Seligman, have tried to solve that mystery for almost two decades. They've visited graveyards and combed through old death notices. They've even spoken with Northup's descendants, including Clayton Adams, Northup's great-great-great-grandson.

Adams shared a copy of Northup's book with his wife, India, when they were dating.

"I told her, 'I have this one book here that was very interesting and based on a true story,' " he says. After a few days, Adams' wife finished the book — and then learned that she was dating one of the author's descendants.

"I think I was just in awe that I knew someone that could actually have their history documented, which unfortunately, a lot of African-Americans don't have," India says.

Adams says he wishes he knew how the story of Northup ended. "It still is open. It's not closed," he says.

Adams describes reading the last words of Northup's book as heartbreaking; "I hope henceforward to lead an upright though lowly life, and rest at last in the church yard where my father sleeps," Northup wrote.

"So after all of that ordeal, his last request in his book, the last line is that he just wished when he dies he could lay right next to the grave of his father," Adams says.

He says the line still haunts him "every time I read it or think about it."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

There's a true American saga on movie screens this weekend. "Twelve Years A Slave" tells the story of Solomon Northup. He was an African-American musician from New York and a free man until he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. After an unlikely rescue, he returned home and wrote a memoir, first published 160 years ago.

But as NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports, the end of Northup's story is still an unsolved mystery.

CAROL WILSON: So which way are...

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: So let's see. So I think if we're here...

Historian Carol Wilson and I are on the National Mall, hunting for the scene of a crime. Trouble is - the crime took place in 1841.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAIN AND VEHICLES)

WANG: It's also raining. Trucks and taxis are whizzing by. Not far from where Solomon Northup was drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery.

So this is the site.

WILSON: This location is pretty close. If these buildings weren't in the way, we could see the Capitol Building. And we know that Northup and the other slaves in the jail could see the Capitol from where they were.

WANG: Wilson and I are standing in front of what is now the headquarters of the Federal Aviation Administration. Back in 1841, in the words of Solomon Northup, it was the site of a slave pen within the very shadow of the Capitol.

Wilson, who teaches at Washington College, says Northup's story is...

WILSON: Unique. First of all, that he could spend over a decade in slavery and then still get out. But also that he wrote an account and it's really one of the most valuable narratives of a slave that we have because he experienced slavery as a free person.

JOHN RIDLEY: Even though we think we've seen every slave narrative, the reality is that very few of these stories have really ever been told and brought to life.

WANG: John Ridley wrote and produced the new film adaptation of "Twelve Years A Slave."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: (as Solomon Northup) Solomon Northup is my name. I'm a free man.

CHRIS CHALK: (as Clemens) If you want to survive, do and say as little as possible.

EJIOFOR: (as Solomon Northup) I don't want to survive. I want to live.

WANG: The film is a visceral portrayal of the brutality of slavery. And so is the book.

CLIFFORD BROWN: When he's being whipped, you feel it. When he triumphs over something, or pulls a fast one on his owner, you're there with him too.

WANG: Clifford Brown teaches at Union College and has co-authored a new biography about Northup. He says Northup's return home in 1853 made headlines. His memoir was published later that year. After the book came out, he gave speeches, sued his kidnappers. And there's some evidence that he helped fugitive slaves escape through the Underground Railroad. But by the end of the Civil War, Northup disappears from the public record.

BROWN: We know where his son is buried. We know where his father is buried. But we don't know where he's buried. It's a mystery.

WANG: A mystery that Brown and his co-authors have tried to solve for almost two decades.

BROWN: Oh, yes. Believe me. Believe me we have tried.

(LAUGHTER)

WANG: Tried by visiting graveyards, combing through old death notices, and talking to Clayton Adams.

CLAYTON ADAMS: My name is Clayton Adams. I am the great, great, great grandson of Solomon Northup on my mother's side of the family.

WANG: Adams shared a copy of Northup's book with his wife when they were dating.

ADAMS: I told her I have this one book here that was very interesting and based on a true story.

INDIA ADAMS: And so he's like here, you should read this. And I'm like, oh, yeah. I'll read it.

WANG: After a few days, Adams' wife India finished the book.

ADAMS: So I'm like, oh my gosh. I can't believe that's a true story, oh, blah, blah, blah, blah. And he was like, that's my great, great, great grandfather. And I was like, What?

(LAUGHTER)

WANG: So I think I was just in awe that, you know, I knew someone that could actually have their history documented, which unfortunately a lot of African-Americans don't have.

Clayton Adams says he wishes he knew how the story of Solomon Northup ended.

ADAMS: It still is open. It's not closed.

WANG: Adams describes reading the last words of Northup's book as heartbreaking.

ADAMS: (Reading) I hope henceforward to lead an upright, though lowly life, and rest at last in the churchyard where my father sleeps.

WANG: Hmm.

ADAMS: So after all of that ordeal, his last request in his book, the last line is that he just wished when he dies he could lay right next to the grave of his father.

WANG: Hmm. That must haunt you, that line.

ADAMS: Yes. Every time I read it or think about it.

WANG: Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.