Object Legacies: Slave Memoir

If you were to enter the Collections Vaults of the St. Catharines Museum, you would find shelves upon shelves in rows upon rows filled with neatly organized artifacts. Each artifact on each shelf tells a story that in some way enriches our understanding of the history of our City.

When it comes to Black History in St. Catharines, we have comparatively few artifacts in the Museum’s Collection to help us tell these stories. Yet, we work hard to keep Black History prominent in our community’s collective memory. We offer tours of our Follow the North Star exhibit year-round (and special public tours during the month of February!), lead outreach programs, and publish blog posts and podcasts surrounding topics in Black History. We also work with members of the community to help gather a deeper understanding of this aspect of our history. This work is a start, and we know there is always room to learn more.

The faded brown cover of this rare book is rather unassuming. STCM 1976.200.35A
The faded brown cover of this rare book is rather unassuming. STCM 1976.2000.35A

One of the ways that we can enhance our learning is by spending more time with the artifacts in our collection that do tell stories of Black History in our community. One of these artifacts can be found in the Archival Storage Room of our Collections Vaults.

Carefully wrapped in acid-free paper and stored inconspicuously among other artifacts of its kind, is an 1856 edition copy of Solomon Northup’s memoir, 12 Years A Slave. It is part of the Museum’s Rare Book Collection. Materially, this artifact is catalogued with the following description:

Cover is faded brown cloth; front cover has a double rectilinear border stamped in blind. Within the border, at the top, repeated and inverted at the bottom, is a tendril pattern stamped in blind. This decoration is repeated on the rear cover. Spine has: “SOL. NORTHUP / TWELVE YEARS / A SLAVE” at the head, followed by a floral motif, all blocked in gold. At base of spine is: “MILLER ORTON & C” blocked in gold.  Front pastedown has inscriptions in pencil, including the name “James Flood” and the initials “CW”.  Free endpaper has “1946” in pencil. Title page indicates: “Twenty-Ninth Thousand” and gives date of publication as 1856.

The spine of the rare book gives us more information of the value of the story written within. STCM 1976.200.35C The faded brown cover of this rare book is rather unassuming. STCM 1976.200.35A

From tangible clues found on this artifact, we can do a bit more digging into the content of the book itself. Northup was an African-American citizen born in 1808 as a free man. He lived in New York but, while visiting Washington in 1841, was captured and forced into slavery. He laboured on plantations for twelve years before being rescued through activity on the Underground Railroad. Northup published his memoir accounting his harrowing experiences.

Solomon Northup’s memoir offers us a detailed written account of his experience as a slave in the 1840s and 1850s. Northup was one of only a few people who had the opportunity to publish their own experiences in enslavement. These writings corroborate the deep issues of racism and discrimination that perpetuated the slave trade during this time in the United States.

Title Page of Solomn Northup’s Twelve Years A Slave. The classic drawing of Northup is printed on the right. STCM 1976.200.35I

Beyond the actual story written in Northup’s memoir, as an artifact, this book is a tangible reminder of this dark scar on history. By preserving such publications in places like museums, we can hope that future generations will continue to learn from the legacy of slavery, a legacy that continues to impact society today.

Other clues on the artifact give us a bit of information into the material history of the object itself. This inscription found in the paste-down might give us clues as to who owned the book and when.  STCM 1976.200.35J

This artifact can also open dialogue around the experiences of fugitive slaves that found themselves in St. Catharines. Hundreds of fugitive slaves had at one point found refuge in St. Catharines, many settling here to build new lives and raise families for generations. How many resonated with Northup’s memoir? How many had similar experiences?

All of these stories can be told from a book with a cover of faded brown cloth.

This year’s Black History Month blog series will focus on artifacts in the St. Catharines Museum’s Collection that enrich our understanding of the importance of Black History in our City. Museums are constantly faced with the challenge of not having all the artifacts to tell all of the stories. But we do have some artifacts that we can use to tell larger stories. It is the responsibility of our Museum to keep as many stories from our community as alive and vibrant as possible for future generations.

An 1856 publication of Solomn Northup’s memoir, 12 Years a Slave, is catalogued in the St. Catharines Museum Collection with the object number 1976.200.35.

Sara Nixon is a public historian and Public Programmer at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.

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