12 Years a Slave’s Solomon Northup Heckled Off Stage in Mississauga
Published January 10, 2017 at 9:03 pm
If you managed to check out the devastating and heartbreaking 2013 film 12 Years a Slave, you probably never imagined that the film’s protagonist (and author behind the autobiographical memoir the film was adapted from) actually made an appearance in modern-day Streetsville in 1857.
According to a Streetsville Historical Society Bulletin, Streetsville gained some unfortunate notoriety in Canada and the United States after an appearance by Solomon Northup, who penned the 1853 narrative Twelve Years a Slave. The troubling incident occurred when Northup gave a talk about his harrowing experiences in the Toronto Township Hall on Church Street (which was then referred to as the Town Hall, which you can see below and the house still stands today).
Northup was a free Black man from New York state who was kidnapped in Washington D.C. in 1841 and sold into slavery. For a dozen years after his kidnapping, he was forced to work on various Louisiana plantations before finally connecting with friends and family in New York who, with the aid of the state, helped him escape.
According to The Streetsville Society bulletin, the talk took place on either August 12 or 17 and made news after Northup was heckled off stage by crude attendees.
An excerpt from the bulletin says:
“The Streetsville (Canada) Review states that when a negro named Solomon Northup, a fugitive slave from New Orleans, was about to commence a lecture at the Town Hall, in that place, on the subject of slavery in the United States, he was interrupted by cries of ‘down with the bloody negro,’ ‘brain the blasted sambo’ [and more]. The noise and confusion was so great, and so universal on the part of the crowd, that Northup was forced to leave the hall under the escort of friends.”
According to the Historical Society, Northup was actually forced to take refuge in a closet until friends could rescue him.
The little-known story actually came to the Society’s attention back in 2013 after the film, directed by Steve McQueen and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender, was released. An American by the name of Mario Valdez emailed the organization a copy of a clipping that appeared in a Boston newspaper that highlighted Northup’s unfortunate appearance in the village.
According to the Society, other American newspapers also commented on the incident as well.
What is even more interesting, however, is that the incident marked the last time Northup’s name appeared in the press in connection with a speaking engagement.
After the incident, people wondered what became of the author of the deeply affecting (and troubling) memoir.
The society reports that many believed he was either murdered in Canada or kidnapped and sold back into slavery. Thankfully, the latter theory is unlikely because Northup was, at the time, too old to be sold profitably as a slave.
There is actually some evidence he was active in helping escaped slaves find freedom in Canada. In fact, two handwritten letters in the Wilbur Henry Siebert collection in the Houghton Library at Harvard University mention Northup as assisting in this way.
The letters were written by a man who was a teenager during the American Civil War, and he stated in the second letter that Northup visited his father after the emancipation in January 1863–six years after his appearance in Streetsville.
While the letters are encouraging, it appears that not all went well for Northup in his later years.
Although he was reunited with his wife and family in 1854, it appears his marriage crumbled, as he was living with his daughter’s family in 1855. In the state census of 1860, however, he is not listed as living with his family.
The Society reports that the census of 1875 lists his wife Anne as a widow. When she died in 1876, the Albany Daily Argus stated that he had become a “worthless vagabond” (which seems like a harsh thing for a newspaper to write, but there you have it).
That news is particularly disheartening when you consider the phenomenal–and deserved–success of the Oscar-winning film based on his work.
At this juncture, it seems impossible to know what eventually became of Northup. The Society reports that some descendants believe he was killed in Mississippi in 1864, but there is no evidence to support this.
Another interesting tidbit is the real-life role of Samuel Bass, a valiant character portrayed by Brad Pitt in the 2013 film. While Bass was responsible for Northup’s eventual escape from imposed servitude (the Canadian carpenter wrote letters on his behalf), it appears he was also something of a flighty vagrant who abandoned his wife and family in Canada and went south.
While that might not have impressed Bass’ wife and family, it certainly helped Northup.
So, there you have it–Streetsville has an interesting connection to the memoirist behind Twelve Years a Slave. Although it’s unfortunate that hecklers ruined his speaking engagement, it’s incredible that one of Mississauga’s most well-known neighbourhoods once hosted a prolific historical figure.
Facts and information courtesy of Malcolm Byard and The Streetsville Historical Society