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Solomon Northup Day celebrated in Saratoga Springs

Updated: 07/21/2014 10:49 AM
Created: 07/20/2014 12:20 AM WNYT.com
By: Dan Levy

SARATOGA SPRINGS - For historians and scholars, the story of Solomon Northup was already fairly well known, but after the release of the Academy Award winning film 12 Years a Slave, the story exploded into the national -- and worldwide -- consciousness.

Northup, a free black man, a musician living in Saratoga Springs, was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. After his rescue 12 years later, he wrote a book about his experiences as a slave on Southern plantations.

"The idea that this happened in Saratoga Springs, that a free man was taken away from Saratoga Springs is startling," says Skidmore College Professor Timothy Harper. "It's sorrowful. It's hurtful. It's painful."

Skidmore College hosted the 16th annual Solomon Northup Day on Saturday, to shed some light, not just on Northup's story and the African-American experience, but to encourage a better understanding of the ongoing modern day struggles for freedom by people throughout the world.

Justin Dixon Northup Gilliam, a great grandson of Solomon Northup was among 75 descendants who attended the event.

"To know his story and know that I'm a legacy of that is something that I am able to cling to every day as I walk through my daily struggles," Gilliam says, "How could I even think today was hard? I've never experienced slavery. I've never been taken away from my family."

Melissa Howell is Northup's great granddaughter who says she too is humbled to be part of the legacy and also pleased to see that her great grandfather's iconic and horrifying experience has purpose.

"It teaches us a lesson that in simple day-to-day practice we can learn to treat each other with respect," Howell says, "It teaches us to appreciate the beauty of diversity."

Elizabeth Jackson, also Northup's great granddaughter, says she's been excited all of her life about being part of her grandfather's legacy, but in the past year, while seeing 12 Years a Slave win Gold Globe awards and Academy Awards, her pride has really blossomed even further.

"It's been phenomenal," she says, "that other people are embracing our story, this is so much more then we ever thought would be possible."

Also attending the Solomon Northup Day celebration were descendants of Samuel Bass, the Canadian carpenter who assisted in Northup's rescue by contacting his friends back home in upstate New York.

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