A promising contender for this year's best picture Oscar has a 120-year-old historical footnote that links it to Omaha.
“12 Years a Slave” is the true story of free black man Solomon Northup of upstate New York, who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery in the South. Steve McQueen (“Shame,” “Hunger”) directed the movie, which opens here Friday.
In a touching moment near the end of the film, Northup is reunited with his family in New York in 1853. His daughter Margaret, who married during his long absence, presents him with his infant grandson, telling him the child's name is Solomon Northup Stanton.
Stanton moved to Nebraska sometime in the 1880s and is buried in Forest Lawn cemetery in Omaha.
“12 Years a Slave,” a true story, is widely expected to be a contender for Academy Awards on March 2. It's based on the 1853 book Northup wrote about his experiences as a slave in Louisiana. Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in the movie, was from the Saratoga Springs, N.Y., area, just north of Albany.
Stanton's Omaha connection was discovered by David Fiske of Ballston Spa, N.Y., a town near Saratoga Springs. Fiske, a retired librarian, has researched and co-written a book, “Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave,” which was released in September.
Fiske's book includes not only the years Northup spent in slavery but also his early life in New York state, what he did after his release from slavery, and information about his family members, including grandson Solomon Northup Stanton.
The son of Margaret Northup and Philip Stanton, Solomon Stanton was born in New York in 1848. It's unknown what happened to Solomon Stanton's first wife, Mary, with whom he lived in New York.
Stanton is listed in an 1889-90 Omaha city directory as a butler for Max Boeder at 1009 S. 29th Ave. An 1892-93 directory lists him as a porter for the Salisbury brothers, 1409 William St. Neither mentions a wife.
On Aug. 25, 1893, Stanton married Elizabeth Adams in Council Bluffs, the Omaha Bee reported.
A World-Herald obituary notice says he died Sept. 29, 1893, and gives his address as 1421 Pierce St. The cause of death was listed as consumptive chills. It's not known if Solomon Stanton had any children. He was buried at Forest Lawn on Oct. 1, 1893, after a Baptist funeral at 12th and Jackson Streets.
Fiske searched census lists, real estate transactions and newspaper articles to learn about Solomon Northup and his family. An interesting story emerged from the public records.
Solomon Northup was born in Essex County, N.Y., on July 10, 1807. His father, Mintus, was a former slave emancipated under the terms of owner Henry Northup's will in 1798. Slaves often took their master's family name, Fiske said. Solomon's mother had never been a slave. Slavery was outlawed in New York state in 1827.
Solomon and his wife, Anne, had three children. The movie shows us only two, one of whom is Stanton's mother, played as a child by Oscar nominee Quvenzhanť Wallis (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”). Among Northup's jobs were working on repairs of the Champlain Canal and rafting cargo on it.
In 1841, two circus promoters lured Northup to Washington, D.C., with promises of employment because of his skill as a violinist. There they sold him to a slave trader (Paul Giamatti in the movie). Northup served several masters in Louisiana for 12 years (Benedict Cumberbatch plays a kinder one, while Michael Fassbender is Edwin Epps, an especially cruel one).
In 1852, Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt in the movie) did some carpentry work for Epps. While assisting Bass, Northup overheard Bass telling Epps that he thought slavery was wrong. Northup later confided to Bass how he had been kidnapped, and Bass agreed to write letters on Northup's behalf to people who knew him as a free man in New York. Those letters led to Northup being freed in 1853.
Fiske said the movie, which he served as an adviser, deviates only in minor details from Northup's 1853 book, “Twelve Years a Slave.”
The book helped fuel the anti-slavery movement, Fiske said, and Northup toured as a lecturer in the years after its release. He appeared with Frederick Douglass, the famed African-American social reformer. Later Northup became involved in the Underground Railroad in Vermont, spiriting freed slaves northward until after the Civil War broke out in 1861. The circumstances of his death are unknown.
One more historical footnote: Solomon Northup Stanton's half-brother, Charles Stanton (son of Philip and his first wife, Betsey Oakley), served in the Civil War with the Massachusetts 54th, a regiment made famous by the 1989 movie “Glory.” He was wounded and died in a Confederate prison camp. Denzel Washington won an Oscar for a supporting role in that film.
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12 Years a Slave
Director: Steve McQueen
Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson
Rating: R for violence/cruelty, some nudity, brief sexuality
Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes
Theaters: Oakview, Aksarben
Look for a movie review in Friday's Living section.