Arts, Culture & Media

Solomon Northup's story was largely forgotten until '12 Years A Slave' — except by his family

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Fox Searchlight Pictures

Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Solomon Northup in "12 Years a Slave."

"12 Years a Slave" tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man, a family man, and a violinist living in Saratoga Springs, New York in the mid-1800s.

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After being kidnapped by slave traders, he's forced to toil on a chain of plantations in the South until he is eventually able to regain his freedom 12 years later. The film is based on Northup's memoir, which was a bestseller during his time, but slipped out of the public eye over the decades. The British-American film is up for an Academy Award on Sunday and has already won several awards in the UK.

Clayton Adams, the great-great-great-grandson of Solomon Northup, won't be accepting any awards for the film, but he is tied to it. He carries the history behind the film in his blood. Adams says he learned he was the great-great-great-grandson of Northup when he was a rowdy teenager.

"I was getting ready to go to college and just finishing up my high school years," he says. "My mother came across the book that was given to her by her mother, Victoria, and I read the book twice. But the second time, I was really understanding that this was a part of my blood, and with that in mind, it truly brought me to tears at the end of the book."

Adams says he feels lucky that he is able to track his ancestry back to the mid-1800s — something many African Americans can't do because the international slave trade broke families apart and denied them the ability to trace their heritage.

"It was truly a missing piece in my life — the puzzle was finally put together and it was amazing," he adds.

Adams says the Hollywood rendition of his relative's life moved him as well.

"I saw the movie three times. It took me three times just to be able to stay until the end, to actually see the ending," says Adams. "I read the book, which is obviously detailed, but it's different when you have the visual, when compared to your imagination. It makes it even more real."

Adams says that, like his mother did for him, he's raising his children to understand the family's storied history and ancestry. On July 24, 1999, Adams took his two daughters back to Saratoga Springs, New York, for the first annual Solomon Northup Day. More than 40 descendants of Solomon Northup attended that first event, with people coming from across the country as far as Louisiana and California. The event is now in its 15th year.

"My daughter, Charisma Adams, has been taking up the violin," he says. "She's in eighth grade now and has been playing for the last four years. I taught her about Solomon Northup at the age of four or five years old. When she got the opportunity in fourth grade to choose what instrument she wanted to play, she chose the violin. She wanted to make her grandfather proud."

The film has been nominated for nine Academy Awards. Adams says he already feels like a victor — even before the winners are announced.

"I have already won by being one of the fortunate African Americans to be able to trace their history back all the way to the 1800s," he says. "Having Solomon Northup's story, which was left out of American history — not just African American history — for going on 200 years now, that in itself is pride enough, that his story is finally being told worldwide. It's already bigger than any statue."

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