In a slave jail in Richmond in 1841, a kidnapped man named Solomon Northup told a truth that could have gotten him killed.
A Richmond slave trader named Goodin had asked him, on that ominous spring day, where he came from.
Goodin was astonished, and the Washington slave trader who’d kidnapped Northup was enraged. When Northup had insisted in a Washington slave jail that he was a free man from New York, trader James H. Burch had beaten him with a paddle until it broke and then resumed the whipping with a cat-o’-nine tails. Burch had promised much worse if Northup said anything else.
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“He looked at me a moment as if he was ready to devour me, then turning round went out,” Northup wrote about his Richmond experience.
“In a few minutes he returned. ‘If ever I hear you say a word about New-York, or about your freedom, I will be the death of you — I will kill you; you may rely on that.’ “
The movie based on Northup’s book, described in one newspaper’s review as “both brutal to watch and stunning to contemplate,” is playing now at six Richmond-area theaters. Though the movie eliminates the Richmond scene, the story once again shows the city’s significance in the slave trade before and during the Civil War.
“He’s sold through Richmond, which indicates its centrality as a slave trading center,” said Gregg Kimball, director of public services and outreach at the Library of Virginia. Northup’s story, and the library’s 1857 edition of “12 Years a Slave,” will be featured with other slave narratives in an exhibition, “To Be Sold,” opening in October.
In 1857, the value of the slave trade in Richmond was estimated at more than $4 million by an editor of the Warrenton Whig. Much of that trade occurred in Shockoe Bottom near the mayor’s proposed location for a new baseball stadium.
William Goodwin’s slave pen at Broad and Union Streets in Shockoe Bottom was the place that Northup most likely was held, according to “Slaves Waiting for Sale” by Maurie D. McInnis, a University of Virginia professor and vice provost.
“Based on the proximity to the railroad station it seems it was Goodwin. … It was a pretty major one,” said David Fiske, who’s retired from the New York State Library and an author of the just-published “Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave.”
“He wasn’t there that long, but it was critical.”
Fiske said in an email, “Though Northup gives the name of the slave trader as Goodin, we believe he meant Goodwin.”
Northup left Richmond on the Orleans, described as a “superior coppered and copper fastened brig” in an ad published April 16, 1841, in the Richmond Whig. Its departure for New Orleans was expected to be April 25.
In a Marine Journal listing in the April 28 Whig, Kimball found a notation that the Orleans had sailed with tobacco and passengers. The ship’s manifest includes a slave named Platt — the name that Northup was forced to use while enslaved, Kimball said.
Records show that the ship cleared the port of Norfolk on May 1 and reached New Orleans on May 24, Kimball said.
Northup was born in 1808 as a free man in New York, where his father had taken the last name of the man who freed him.
In 1841, Northup was living in Saratoga Springs, working at a variety of jobs and picking up extra money as a violinist. He was lured to Washington by the promise of a job playing music.
“There’s a moment at the beginning of the film and the book when he’s taken prisoner in Washington,” Kimball said. “He’s lured there and drugged, ends up in chains, and they say that’s not who you are any more. They claimed he was from Georgia. He was misrepresented by the traders.
“The movie is fairly true to the narrative. Some of the dialog is virtually right out of the narrative.”
His release was made possible by a sympathetic carpenter who wrote letters on his behalf to people in the North who knew Northup. They put together a legal case that he was free and went to Louisiana to find him.
As Northup traveled back north, once again a free man, he passed through Richmond and caught a glimpse of Goodin’s pen again. He arrived back in Washington on Jan. 17, 1853.
“Another interesting part of the case,” Kimball said, “the two guys who lured him to Washington were prosecuted but not convicted. At that time in the D.C. courts a black could not testify against a white.”
About 60 descendants of Northup’s son Alonzo, who fought in the Civil War, still live in central New York, Fiske said.
Ana Edwards, chair of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project of the Defenders for Freedom, Justice, and Equality, said the little-known passage of Northup through Richmond’s slave jails “really does point to the prevalence of the slave trade in Richmond. It lets you know that there’s much more to know about life in Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom and there’s much more to protect. It’s about a way of life that all of our ancestors were a part of. It’s important to understand how that affected everyone.”