Freedom Center Unveils Rare First Edition of Twelve Years a Slave 1853 autobiography tells story from Oscar-nominated movie

. February 21, 2014

CINCINNATI (Feb. 20, 2013)-The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center unveiled today its latest acquisition-a rare, early first edition copy of Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, now on view.

1st edition copy of Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, now on display at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

1st edition copy of Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, now on display at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

Twelve Years a Slave recounts Solomon Northup’s true story as a free man from New York abducted and sold into slavery, from the time of his kidnapping to his journey to freedom and reunification with his family. Published in 1853 immediately after he regained freedom, the book is the subject of the Oscar-nominated film of the same name.

“We began telling the Solomon Northup’s story two years ago with our documentary Journey to Freedom, which has been shown at more than 50 US embassies worldwide and several screenings in the U.S.,” explained Luke Blocher, director of national strategic initiatives for the Freedom Center. “We’re proud to add this book to our Solomon Northup Tour, which gives visitors an immersive way to understand his journey.”

The 2012 Journey to Freedom documentary, created with support from the US Department of State and Google, tells Northup’s story, along with the parallel story of Vannak Prum, a Cambodian man captured and sold into slavery on a Thai fishing boat 150 years after Northup. For both men, a network of abolitionists helped them escape slavery. The documentary premiered at the US Dept of State in November 2012 and is now used as a tool for discussing human trafficking.

That documentary has led to other synergies with Northup’s book and his story. The Freedom Center attended Solomon Northup Day in Saratoga Springs in 2013; has a partnership with book publisher Eakin Films & Publishing which gives proceeds from audio book sales to the Freedom Center; and Blocher represented the Freedom Center on a panel with 12 Years A Slave film director Steve McQueen at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

And inside the Freedom Center, staff historians worked last fall to create the Solomon Northup Tour. Using images from the 12 Years a Slave film (provided by Fox Searchlight), the self-guide book takes visitors to seven stops throughout the museum, providing context for what Northup would have experienced, from his enslavement to freedom. Elements include an authentic slave pen and an interactive exhibit explaining the back-breaking work Northup would have done while enslaved.

“Since the creation of Journey to Freedom, we wanted to become a home for the Solomon Northup story, a true freedom hero,” explained Clarence G. Newsome, Ph.D., president of the Freedom Center. “As a religious scholar and minister, I have taught with Northup’s book for many years. It provides a close-up look at how enslaved people engaged in the process of understanding who they are and whose they are. A self-perception rooted in a higher power helped them sustain a consciousness of being free, which helped them act to free themselves.”

The book will be on view for several months in the museum’s Everyday Freedom Heroes gallery, before finding a permanent place within the museum’s Slavery to Freedom exhibit. It will cycle off view at times to give the book rest from direct light. Although about 200 copies of the first edition are believed to be in collections of libraries and universities (in varying conditions), the Freedom Center book is the only known copy available for general public viewing.

“It is quite fitting that this scarce early printing of the first edition of Twelve Years a Slave has been added to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center,” stated Kimberly Blaker of New Boston Rare and Fine Books, who arranged the acquisition. “Solomon Northup’s
autobiographical account of his experience is a story, that at that time, most slaves could not safely and freely tell the outside world. Northup’s ability as a once-again free man to share his experience both in writing and through lectures in the Northeast surely played an important role in the later abolition of slavery.”

The Freedom Center was able to purchase the book through a donation from Francie and John Pepper.

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