Jan 27, 2014
07:34 AMThe Connecticut Story
Connecticut Has Strong Historical Tie to Oscars-Nominated '12 Years a Slave'
An internship designed to help the Cornwall Historical Society determine how many enslaved people were kept in that town has revealed a tantalizing connection between the town and the film “12 Years a Slave,” nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
While doing his research, Ryan Bachman of Norfolk (below), an anthropology major who is now applying to graduate schools, came across a reference to Victory Birdseye and his role in drafting the legislation that eventually helped free Solomon Northrup, an educated free black man who had been kidnapped into slavery.
In 1853 Northrup wrote his memoir, “12 Years a Slave,” which has been now transformed into a much-acclaimed movie by director Steve McQueen.
Victory Birdseye, the architect of the legislation, was from a Cornwall, Conn., slaveholding family. He and his father’s slave, Obed, grew up together. Obed was eventually freed, married, bought land and was a successful laborer in Cornwall. Bachman notes that when freed Obed symbolically changed his name from Obed, Hebrew for “slave,” to Obadiah, the Hebrew word for “Slave of God.”
Bachman concludes that it is likely that the presence of an enslaved child in his boyhood home influenced the anti-slavery beliefs that later led Victory Birdseye to author the bill that helped free Solomon Northrup.
Bachman admitted that the connection he chanced upon between Birdseye and Northrup is “very obscure,” and said he found the first reference to it in a British newspaper. “Then I started looking through books to find out more,” he said. “That Victory Birdseye was from a slave-owning family was shocking.”
Slavery in the North was a different institution than it was in the South, but Bachman said the underlying injustice was always there. Slave and master might labor in the fields together, the slave might eat at the farm table with the family, but he still did not have freedom.
In the Birdseye family, though, one might infer a level of discomfort with owning another human being. Bachman noted that Victory Birdseye’s father, Ebenezer, freed his young slave even though he could legally have held him in bondage. “By law, slaves born after 1784 were to be freed when they were 25,” Bachman explained. “Obed was born before that, so Ebenezer Birdseye did not have to set him free. But he did.”
Bachman’s research in Cornwall has progressively focused on the story of Obed—who took the name of Obadiah after his manumission—and Naomi Freeman. Naomi was born free in Vermont in 1794 and was adopted by the Sedgwick family of Cornwall as a toddler. Bachman said that John Sedgwick’s wife brought the black toddler home with her after a visit to her brother and sister-in-law in Vermont.
The Sedgwick family was influential in the overthrow of slavery in Massachusetts after Theodore Sedgwick took on the case of the famous Mumbet, who fled her Sheffield, Mass., master’s home, and pled for his assistance in securing her freedom.