FAMILY TIES TO CHAINS OF THE PAST

CHRIS STURGIS Staff writer

Section: CAPITAL REGION,  Page: B1

Times Union at Albany, NY

Date: Saturday, July 24, 1999

Three generations of a family gathered at Union College Friday to get acquainted with a relative who died long before they were born. They came to spend time with Solomon Northup, who was born a freeman in 1808 in Minerva, New York. In 1841, he was kidnapped and sold into slavery and then rescued in 1853. The date of his death is unknown but believed to be sometime before 1863.

Descendants from as far as Los Angeles came to see Union’s exhibit, “Twelve Years a Slave: The Kidnapping Enslavement & Rescue of Solomon Northup.”

In the Reamer Campus Center, the matriarch of the group, 90-year-old Victoria Northup Dunham, sat in her wheelchair as she viewed photographs that told the story of Northup’s life.

Political science professor Clifford Brown told her that her ancestor had many talents, working as a carpenter, musician, railroad worker and log transporter. Dunham was struck by the opulence of the dining room at the long-since demolished United States Hotel in Saratoga Springs, where Northup played the violin.

“Oh, my goodness, look at all those tables,” she said, looking at the photograph taken in 1841. Brown showed the elderly visitor from Los Angeles a map of the Troy-Saratoga Railroad that employed Northup and boosted Saratoga Springs to resort status as early as the 1830s.

Dunham’s grandson, Richard Lindsay, pored over a genealogical chart. He said his grandmother read a newspaper article about the exhibit and told him about it. Lindsay, from Syracuse, said he felt pride that Northup was multitalented and musical — and anger that someone in a state without slavery could be dragged into it.

“How could it happen?” Lindsay said. “It makes you think of your history. The truth is beginning to show what it was really like in New York.”

Lori Williams said she felt sadness and anger about slavery from learning what her great-great-great-great grandfather had experienced.

“You don’t feel the emotion until it hits you this close,” she said. “The chains brought out a lot of emotion,” she said, referring to a set of iron shackles displayed on a table.

Williams said her 7-year-old daughter, Lauria, reacted to the exhibit in one sentence: “This is a very bad thing.”

“She’s got a lot of questions that I’m sure we’ll get at the hotel,” Williams said.

An elementary school teacher in Syracuse, Williams said she will use the exhibit in her Black History Month lessons.

Another descendant, Melissa Dowdy, said she would like all youngsters to be exposed to exhibits.

“If kids understood where they came from, they would appreciate life more and there would be less gang violence,” she said.

Union’s exhibit on Solomon Northup ended in March, but the material was lent to historical societies and libraries as well as woven into the college’s freshman writing course, said curator Rachel Seligman.

Northup told his own story in a memoir titled, “Twelve Years a Slave.” Northup’s life has also been made into a motion picture, Half Slave Half Free, by Black Vintage Video of Los Angeles.

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