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12 Years a Slave: Primary Sources on the Kidnapping of Free African Americans

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This post is by Rebecca Newland, the 2013-2015 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

Currently 12 Years a Slave, the film version of the true story of Solomon Northup, is showing in theaters. His account is a powerful one: A free African American, Northup was kidnapped in 1841 and taken from New York to Washington, D.C., then to New Orleans, where he was sold into twelve years of slavery. A study of primary sources from the Library of Congress indicates that Northrup’s experience was far from unique.

Such kidnappings and attempted kidnappings happened more frequently than is usually known. Stories are reported in newspapers of the time. Personal liberty laws in states such as Michigan and Wisconsin gave free people legal recourse if kidnap attempts were made, or if they were able to make contact with friends or family after being kidnapped.

Effects of the Fugitive-Slave-Law
Effects of the Fugitive-Slave-Law

Fugitive slave laws allowed African Americans who could not prove their free status to be taken into slavery.  What does the political cartoon suggest about negative effects these laws had both on escaped slaves and African Americans like Solomon Northup who were born free?

Northup’s story brought the issue to a wider audience when it was released as a book in 1853. The Anti-Slavery Bugle quoted from an assortment of reviews  of the narrative published in various American newspapers. Many of these excerpts focus on the strong reaction reviewers had to the Northup’s traumatic experience as someone ripped away from his home and family and forced into slavery with all its horrors. More than one reviewer compares his true tale to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s fictional Uncle Tom’s Cabin. (However, for a happy ending to the story, you might visit this 1999 gathering of Solomon Northup’s descendants.)

Primary sources such as these can provide many additional accounts that add depth and context to stories such as Solomon Northup’s. What questions do they also raise about the individuals whose stories cannot be found in the historical record?

Comments (52)

  1. What an amazing story. I am an American Literature teacher at the high school level ( juniors), and we are currently doing readings in a unit I entitled “Freedom Is Never Free.” We are in the midst of reading slave narratives, and just today we are reading excepts from Solomon Northrup’s amazing autobiographical account.

    I also saw the movie last week. Tremendous.

  2. Do you know of any documentation, books, or news articles featuring any regrets of slave ownership by plantation owners, or by traders in the slave trade?


  3. Fernando…I don’t know if you were directing your question to me or not, but the best one I’ve found is the autobiography of John Newton (titled Out of the Depths).

    You can also find a lot of Newton’s story through online searches. I’m sure there are others, but this one is the best I have found, and I use excerpts of it with my classes.

  4. Check some of the college level Literature books. Believe it or not, many of those books have more truths in them than the current public school history, English, or literature books have.

  5. A question that I have is if the story they didn’t find were the people that were killed before they could of stand up for them self.


  7. Fugitive slave laws allowed african american who could not prove their free status to be taken into salvery.

  8. He shouldn’t have been kidnapped if he was a free man.

  9. Everyone should’ve been treated free.

  10. there is no right as to keep people and make them work against their will but to kidnapped and be put back in slavery after being released

  11. A man with such intelligance should not have been kidnapped into slavery cause that is not worthy of him,and no in that fact shouldnt be treated like that .

  12. No man should be kidnapped especially as a free man or anyone in that matter. When you have freedom you should not be able to get kidnapped and sold as a slave for 12 years.

  13. if he was free, they shouldnt of kidnapped him.

  14. He was a FREE slave so they shouldn’t have been allowed to force him to be a slave again

  15. a man that was kidnapped into slavery is cruel because being born free with a family and kids then going into a life where all you know is work is hard to adjust to and hard to accept

  16. i think we should honor the blacks for and the suffering the had to go through.

  17. No matter the color of your skin, everyone should be treated the same.

  18. if he was free, they shouldn’t of kidnapped him.

  19. we are all human, we all make mistakes. i believe there is no such thing as race because we are all equal. we all came from one ancestor anyways.

  20. this is very crazy because he was free and then kidnapped so it is not fair

  21. This is a really informative article he should have stayed being free and what they did was wrong..

  22. I remember seeing the movie with my mother and cousin. It changed my perspective on slavery as a whole and added new information on what went on during those hard slave times.

  23. if he was a free man then he shouldn’t have been kidnapped and forced him to be a slave

  24. Neither my granddad and grandmother were slaves, but her parents were, his parents weren’t. My grandmother told me that, her mom been through slavery, called a Nigger. She thanks god, that it was over because not only she didn’t want to be a slave, but also, not have the next generation going through the same thing. My granddad, said that his mom married a white man, but his mom when through it to, but than stopped because of this. But, his mom told me the same thing, that she is glad that the next generation go through this, most importantly. Slavery not going on.

  25. i feel so bad that even though he was free he still was forced into slavery

  26. The ways that people treated african american was wrong slavery back then was serious they would treat many people like they were animals and we are lucky that we live in this time in generation.

  27. If he was free why kidnap him that’s wrong

  28. A free man may be free in his own will but to his country and owners he was a slave .

  29. they should have had better regulation to protect the free slaves

  30. this man should have never been kept a slave because everyone needs to be treated the same ans not different of our skin color. no one should ever be mistreated.

  31. Just glad that slavery isn’t still alive.

  32. The past was bad but thank god that its all over now because no matter who you are or what you are you have to be treated the same you are nl different from anybody else.

  33. They way slaves were treated was unfair. nobody should be treated that way

  34. If you are free, nobody has the right to take that freedom away from you if you managed to get out of slavery. Even if you don’t have freedom they should be given freedom.

  35. The slave in the first place should of just had freedom. Having slaves was just one of the dumbest things the world has done. From Leo/ and Mason

  36. They way slaves were treated was unfair. nobody should be treated that way it is never right

  37. It is awful because no one should be forced into anything they do not want to do. He was a free man and that should have been established in a better way. Protection within free slaves may have been hard to pursue but it is just so wrong to kidnap an innocent man. God bless that slavery has been put to an end.

  38. Some people may hate the fact that colored skin people may be sometimes as intelligent,or more intelligent, then a Caucasian is allowed to be free. Some Caucasian may see some black people as a threat to them. Others just see that a colored men is under them the Caucasian men because it may seem that the color black is a dirty color. The ones who have harmed another no matter the color, will realize their mistake. The ones that do not should know they’ve done wrong, for America is a country that is UNDER GOD, and in Gods eyes we are all equal, unique, special and precious. Showing love to your brothers and sisters no matter the color is what citizens of a country that is under God should be have as.

  39. they should have had a law /better regulation to protect the free slaves

  40. It’s amazing what Solomon, African American and even other people what wanted to help and and stand up for blacks had to go though. No man should go through that. We have came a long way but even though we live in the ‘Land of the Free’ not everyone believes in it and hopefully one day we ALL and come together and be one.

  41. the equality of man is what will bring us together and make peace

  42. This is cruel. No man nor women should be enslaved… Especially if they were once free. No one should EVER be enslaved!

  43. This is not right that they can just get a black man and then place him as a slave. i wonder sometimes what would have happened if this was still going on or if this never happened what would the would be like or act.

  44. He was FREE!!!! come on man…

  45. What they did was cruel, abusive, and racist. Especially taking free African Americans off the street and making them their slaves even if they were free. Doing that is wrong in so many ways and I don’t get what, in their right mind, gave them the idea to do such a idiotic thing.

  46. In the month of black history we should have the whole month off or have field trips to black culture museums that can show the origin of most famous places/ items such as pyramids and real egyptian gods of there true color BLACK…

  47. i think all black people are as equal as i am there should of never been racism in this world. personally i dont judge anyone not by the skin color i love people equally
    when it comes to girls either way i dont care about their skin color i just care about heart and personality

  48. we are equal every body is equal no matter what we should all love each other

  49. they should not have put him into slaver for many reasons, its not right and nobody should have been put into slavery

  50. If the story they didn’t find were the people that were killed before they could of stand up for them self.

  51. Was there a law in place that prevented the kidnapping of free black people?

  52. Thank you for the research material I’m writing a dramatist set in 1860 Carson City, Nevada.
    Renee L Bakes
    Facebook page

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