Solomon Northup descendants (from left to right), Rebecca Bicksler, Fatima Matthews-Abdallah, Melissa Howell, Congeressman Paul Tonko, Rita Matthews, Irene Zahos  and John Northup. Photo taken by Solomon Northup Day Founder, Renee Moore.


Excerpts from Don Papson’s Closing Remarks for Solomon Northup Day,
Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, July 18, 2015

In my closing remarks for this wonderful day of celebration for Solomon Northup, I will share my thoughts on fear, hate, love, and change. I would like to  begin with a statement on justice by one of our country’s greatest poets, Langston Hughes,

“That Justice is a blind goddess is a thing to which we blacks are wise.  Her bandage hides two festering sores.  That once perhaps were eyes."

Two days before last year’s Solomon Northup Day celebration of freedom, Eric Garner died on Staten Island after a police officer put him in a chokehold.

* * *

….on June 18th,  21 year old white supremacist Dylann Storm Roof murdered nine members of Charleston, South Carolina’s Mother Emanuel AME church while they were studying the Bible.

To everyone’s astonishment, the survivor’s of the victims forgave the assassin. Rev. Daniel Simmons granddaughter told Roof, “hate won’t win…”

* * *

My wife, Vivian, and I watched the unfolding Charleston story on CNN while we were in Los Angeles visiting her 92 year old brother, Dr. Ralph Gardner-Chavis….

One day during our visit to Los Angeles, I was driving somewhere. I don’t  remember where we were going now,  but  I do remember what I saw— the words  “HATE WON’T WIN” attached to a cyclone metal fence. They were large, irregularly shaped letters of many colors.  When I see things while I am driving, I create imaginary stories about them. This time I envisioned an emotionally overwhelmed artist spontaneously expressing love for strangers who had died three thousand miles away in Charleston.

 “Hate Won’t Win” is a profound truth. Hate is a dark force. But light and love dispel it.

After the admitted assassin of the Emmanuel 9 was arrested, the dark forces fought back. In a matter of days, six black churches were burned to the ground. Investigators immediately set to work to determine if they were accidents or hate crimes.

Hate kills people and destroys  property, but it can not conquer the human spirit. Hate is self destructive; the human spirit is eternal and deeply creative.

Yet the hurt hate causes is not easy to overcome. It challenges us to change ourselves and to seek the balance we need to envision a better future. And to hold on to the faith that we can create it.

* * *

I believe each generation must reach higher than the previous one. I believe change waits for the right time, and that its time has come. The positive reaction of people to  the events in Charleston signifies to me  that South Carolina accepted change because it had to.

* * *

Children today are coming into and creating a different world. Vivian and I  know a woman who has two young grandchildren in  Charleston. After the massacre, they confronted their father, “Why are white people killing black people? Why are they still talking about slavery? That happened long time ago.” The children are 5 and 7 years old.

* * *

I cried when the Confederate flag was ceremonially lowered and removed in Charleston. It means that the Civil War is symbolically over. One hundred and fifty-four years after Confederate soldiers fired the first shots of the war at Charleston’s Fort Sumter.

* * *

…sometimes change comes when we don’t expect it ever will, as it has in Charleston. The changes there are the result of the  astonishing restraint of the survivors of the victims of the massacre.

Restraint was one Solomon Northup’s greatest strengths. If he hadn’t restrained himself, he wouldn’t have survived his enslavement.

In 12 Years a Slave, Northup describes his fear during a fight with John Tibeats:


         Not able to unloose his hand, once more I seized him by the throat, and this time, with a vice-like grip that soon relaxed his hold…

         There was a ‘lurking devil’ in my heart that prompted me to kill the human blood-hound on the spot—to retain the grip on his accursed throat till the breath of life was gone! I dared not murder him, and I dared not let him live. If I killed him, my life must pay the forfeit—if he lived, my life only would satisfy his vengeance. A voice within whispered me to fly. To be a wanderer among the swamps, a fugitive and a vagabond on the face of the earth, was preferable to the life that I was leading.”

Solomon tossed Tibeats aside, ran  across the plantation, and prayed to God,

         “Have pity on the poor slave­—let me not perish. If thou dost not protect me, I am lost­—lost! Such supplications, silently and unuttered, ascended from my inmost heart to Heaven. But there was no answering voice—no sweet, low tone, coming down from on high, whispering to my soul, “It is I, be not afraid.” I was forsaken of God, it seemed—the despised and hated of men!”

He fled into the swamps and made his way to William Ford, who he knew would help him. Tibeats  sold Solomon to the psychotic Edwin Epps. But he never stopped believing that he could be free again, and he endured Epps oppression until he  persuaded Canadian carpenter Samuel Bass to help him.

Eric Garner’s death a year ago brought grief and anger, but it also brought change. The officer who put him into a chokehold denies that he did and has not been charged, but Governor Cuomo has put the state’s attorney general in charge of investigations of such  deaths.

And Garner’s mother believes that black lives now matter to more than black people. She believes,

“Before when something happened, it was basically people of color because that’s who they were targeting, but now everybody, people of color, different races, they all stand up. Because they see this as wrong. It’s not about black or white, it’s wrong or right.”

People of different colors have united for change in this country before. We worked together and helped thousands of fugitives from slavery escape to freedom on the Underground Railroad. We fought and died together during the Civil War. We marched hand in hand during the Civil Rights Era. We elected and relected the first black president of the United States.

In the 400 year struggle against white supremacy, we have united for change again and again—during slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, industrial re-enslavement, the Civil Rights Era, and in support of Barack Obama who called for change because the time had come for it again.

We knew he was right.

Now, across the country, we hear different words, see different actions, observe different faces…we are changing.