For the past few years it’s seemed like everywhere we look we’re seeing a new book or movie (or N-YHS satellite exhibit) about the Civil War, and as the 150th anniversary of the end of the war approaches, it definitely seems like we have found a new history hot-topic. In light of all the Oscar attention it’s been receiving, I finally went to the movie theater and saw 12 Years a Slave. If you haven’t yet, run out this minute and get a ticket, you won’t be disappointed. 12 Years a Slave tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free man and respected musician born in New York. He is lured into going to Washington, D.C. with the prospect of giving a concert, and is drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery.
A sign commemorating Solomon Northup in his home of Saratoga, NY
What is known as the “Reverse Underground Railroad” doesn’t get half as much attention as it should. During the first half of the nineteenth-century it was not uncommon for escaped slaves to be caught and either returned to their masters or resold, but the kidnapping of African American’s that were born free was unknown to most of the population.
What was most disturbing to the people being transported, and to those of us now learning about it, is that the hub of these illegal sales was right in Washington, D.C., literally under the shadow of the Capitol Building on Independence Avenue. The most notorious of these ‘slave pens’ was the one run by William Williams, and is the very place that Solomon Northup was held in. Williams’ pen was nicknamed ‘The Yellow House” because of its pleasing and cheery outside that masked the misery on the inside. It was situated right on the National Mall and hundreds of people walked by it everyday, completely unaware of what was going on inside.
After the Civil War began, kidnappings and internal trading came to a halt, and this particular thread faded into the broader tapestry of slavery in America, immortalized only in diaries like Northup’s.
Here’s the trailer for 12 Years a Slave- Go and see it, it’s an amazing story with an amazing background!
And for more interesting takes on slavery check out these great books:
The House Girl, by Tara Conklin
Beloved, by Toni Morrison
And don’t forget to come visit us this summer on Governor’s Island to learn more about slavery right here in New York City!
-Emma van Lent