Freedom, unlike it is as often thought, is not granted, but claimed. Once claimed, it is not guaranteed and must be defended and guarded with vigilance. The forces which seek to rob our freedom need only a brief moment of vulnerability and a sliver of misplaced trust to change the condition of our lives forever. It is highly unlikely that once this process of enslavement occurs that a return to a liberated life will ever be possible. Yet, the remarkable Solomon Northup did just that and now the Solomon Northup Legacy is petitioning to for him to be granted the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

An American abolitionist, Solomon Northup was abducted as a free man in the early days of post emancipation and sent to work in the fields as a slave under the whip. He managed to escape his captors and went on to recount his story in his memoir, Twelve Years a Slave, telling his story through the unique perspective of a man who could draw the comparison between a life of freedom and one of enslavement.

1853 TYAS 1st edition 10th printing_Melissa Howell

A first edition of Twelve Years a Slave, the memoir of Solomon Northup.

An intelligent and artistic soul, he articulates the horrifying experience from the unique point of view of being an educated and well-respected member of society suddenly forced into enslavement.

As Melissa Howell, Northup’s descendant and Founder of the Solomon Northup Legacy, exclusively told Vanichi:

“This endeavor is a song for how Solomon rose from the soil and cotton fields he worked, putting forth his personal experiences as a tool to educate about the institution of slavery, slave life, and how it could be rectified.  He engaged speaking on anti-slavery platforms, penned his memoir, drafted two plays to reenact his slave life, and has been linked to the Underground Railroad as a conductor.  He willingly chose to be a part of the solution to eradicate slavery.  For those efforts, and the resounding relevance of his story as is transfixed upon discussions of modern slavery and human trafficking today, I believe he has contributed by demonstrable means, so to affect change in our present culture”.

It is no surprise that his memoirs would become the Academy Award-winning major motion picture also entitled 12 Years a Slave. What is a surprise is that his story reaches movie theaters and magazines before being taught in most US classrooms.

In order to change this, initiatives must be taken to raise awareness of those who were on the front lines, whose efforts and actions began the transition from slavery to free society. Such an action is being taken today, as the growing movement of 10,000 strong is petitioning for Solomon Northup to be granted the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor a civilian can receive in America. Led by the Solomon Northup Legacy, headed by Melissa Howell, the petition will go straight to the White House, urging the Obama administration to officially acknowledge his status as an advocate and pioneer of abolitionism. They need 100,000 signatures in total by July 7, 2015.

Being that 12 Years a Slave is consumed as entertainment, and awarded the highest critical acclaim, so the man himself should be recognized for his historical significance. As unique and fascinating as this particular account is we do not need a sensational story or heroic tale to honor the countless and as yet nameless victims of the African Diaspora. However it’s where we must start if we are to begin the process of truly realizing what freedom is. If these figures can be raised to iconic status and their experiences popularized, then it will follow that their behaviors and attitudes would leave an impression on our collective consciousness.

They will become positive role models who deepen the understanding of our current position. To put it simply, if we can recall the names of runaway slaves and civil rights pioneers as easily as we do celebrities, athletes, and musicians, then we will emulate their actions and idolize their achievements in the same manner.

We must familiarize ourselves with the slavery of our past in order to recognize it in our present. With human trafficking, child soldiers, forced labor camps, sweatshops and debt/wage slavery thriving in many parts of our current world, it’s obvious that the fight has not fully been won. In order to overcome, we must start by acknowledging oppression. The chain of ignorance, for example, that keeps us unaware of forced labor producing the products we buy and use, can be broken simply by refusing to support unethical business practices when we discover them.

Our purchasing power can demand change. The resistance we may encounter from anyone wishing to maintain the oppressive status quo will pale in comparison to the threat of harm and death met by those who escaped the plantation. Their example should serve as an inspiration, to motivate our societies to action against the appalling conditions faced by many today.

“As a collective, we can all campaign against the illegal dehumanization of humankind,” Melissa Howell states. “Whether a trailblazer of the 19th century or a 21st century modern abolitionists, we can work together articulating the causes, the signs, providing recovery services and training, and partnering with others to combat slavery.  They are the Solomon Northup’s of today  reimagining freedom for all of society”.

We are fortunate that the risk, danger and harm we may face when protesting injustice is not anywhere near the same degree they faced, and it should serve to remind us that we have very little excuse not to. As it stands today there over 26 million men, women and children enslaved around the globe. According to, the average cost of a slave in the 21st century is $90. Human trafficking is a $32 billion a year criminal enterprise that preys upon the poor and the marginalized on a global scale.

1853 TYAS photo_ Solomon Plantation Suit_Melissa Howell

When petitions such as the Solomon Northup Legacy’s are successful in achieving their objectives it is a sign we are up to the task of decreasing these numbers and increasing our values. The prospect of a truly free humanity and world depends on it. Click here to find out more about the petition to Honor Former Slave and Abolitionist Solomon Northup with The Medal of Freedom.

[Special thanks to Bonnie Abaunza]