Twelve Years a Slave, the raw and emotionally gripping new film from director Steve McQueen follows the life of Solomon Northup, a free black man and father of three who is kidnapped in 1841 and forced into slavery in the South. Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Brad Pitt, this film has been heralded as an Oscar favorite for its unflinching portrayal of Northup’s brutal journey to reunite with his family and regain his freedom.
Whether you’ve seen Twelve Years a Slave or not, check out these five facts on the real Solomon Northup:
1. Solomon Northup was a freeborn citizen of New York, but his father, Mintus Northup, was a slave who was granted freedom upon the death of his owner.
2. Before his kidnapping, Northup characterized his life as “prosperous,” working on railroads, farming, and playing the violin at local dances.
3. Slavery was abolished in New York in 1827, but many free blacks lived in constant fear of being kidnapped by slave catchers and forced into slavery. In 1840, New York passed a law designed to protect free citizens from being taken against their will; however, Northup was wrongfully seized only a year later.
4. Solomon Northup was freed from a plantation in the Red River area of Louisiana—the same area that was the setting for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. His account of his kidnapping is dedicated to Stowe.
5. Following his eventual freedom after 12 years of slavery, Northup became an active member of the Abolitionist movement as well as a noted speaker on the lecture circuit. But despite his fame, details of his death remain a mystery.