Opinion + Voices

Memoirs of slaves helped frame debate in California's history

Brenda StevensonBrenda E. Stevenson is professor of history at UCLA. She is the past chair of the history department and past chair of Afro-American Studies. Her books include the award-winning "Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South" and "The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender and the Origins of the L.A. Riots."
Crowned as the Academy Awards’ best picture of the year on Sunday, the critically acclaimed film, “12 Years a Slave, is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a literate, musically talented, free man of color from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., who was kidnapped, sold into slavery and forced to spend the next 12 harrowing years of his life working on sugar and cotton plantations in central Louisiana before he was rescued. The heart-wrenching film brings to life the vulnerability of “free” blacks to the slave trade, the savage brutality of the institution of slavery and the sheer courage of one individual determined to regain his freedom and rejoin his family. Northup was rescued in 1853, and, several months later, published his memoirs about his ordeal.
The 1853 publication of “Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853 was one of the most popular of the late antebellum firsthand accounts of southern slavery. It sold 30,000 copies, not quite rivaling the popularity of Frederick Douglass’ “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself”(1845), but certainly competing well with other important black “slavery-to-freedom” accounts of its time. The works by Northup, Douglass and many others helped to convince their audiences in the nation and beyond of the absolute moral imperative of supporting the cause of abolition in the largest slave society in the western hemisphere —the United States of America.
Remarkably, a first edition copy of this transformative text, “Twelve Years a Slave,” is located in the Special Collections wing of the Young Research Library! The presence of Northup’s masterwork in YRL speaks not only to the magnificence of the library’s manuscript, rare book and ephemera holdings, but also hints mightily at the importance of California in the debate about slavery, particularly in the last decade of the antebellum era.
Prior to California’s statehood in 1850, escaped black slaves dreamed of coming to any part of Mexican territory, which had abolished slavery in 1829. While few were able to reach California, the national debate over the soul of the nation was hardly absent there. As residents began to organize for statehood in the late 1840s, many were “free soilers” who were against allowing any blacks, free or slave, in. Others were outright abolitionists or proslavery advocates. The first two senators from California typify this general divide. One was the famed abolitionist John Fremont, who was the first, and second, Republican presidential nominee; he was also the first to emancipate slaves of “rebellious” masters during the Civil War. The other inaugural California senator was William Gwin, a slaveholder, originally from Tennessee, whose slaves, like Solomon Northup, actually sued their master/captor for reparations. When California finally was admitted to the Union in 1850, it was declared a free state. Still, slavery did not immediately disappear. Many, like Gwin, refused to release their slaves; and slaves were still advertised for sale in local newspapers as late as 1853. Some state residents even continued to hope that the state would eventually divide into two separate entities — one slave and the other free.
The Compromise of 1850, which allowed California’s free statehood, also stipulated, among other things, the prohibition of slave sales in the nation’s capital. Of course, had such a law been in place in 1841, Solomon Northup would not have been kidnapped and sold in Washington, D.C. But this compromise also put into place a sweeping fugitive slave law that not only made it particularly easy for slave masters to retrieve persons they claimed were their runaway “property,” but also encouraged people to look the other way when kidnapped free people, like Solomon Northup, pressed their claims of freedom. And while Solomon Northup’s father Mintus was able to vote in New York state, California’s constitution forbade the black vote.
Still, the Golden State’s federally recognized “free” status did afford some release from the bondage so eloquently, and brutally, detailed in “Twelve Years a Slave.” Arriving as a slave from Mississippi via Utah, famed Angeleno Bridget Biddy Mason, for example, sued slaveowner Robert Marion Smith and was granted her freedom in 1856. Archy Lee stood trial four times in search of his freedom as a California resident and finally gained it in 1858.
By 1860, when the country was on the brink of an internal war precisely over the issue of the destiny of 4 million slaves, the vast majority of California’s African-Americans were “free.” Their freedom undoubtedly was intimately tied to the purpose and promise of testimonies like Solomon Northup’s narrative. The presence of a first edition in UCLA’s library of such a shattering indictment of the institution of slavery rightfully positions California at the center of the nation’s greatest moral struggle.
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