Special Collections and the Lemon Project Welcome Descendants of Solomon Northup

First Edition of Northup's Twelve Years A Slave, 1853In the summer of 2014, several descendants of Solomon Northup, whose story in slavery was depicted in the recent Oscar-winning movie, 12 Years A Slave, visited Swem Library to see the diary kept by Florence A. Barber, the daughter of Philip and Margaret Anne Stanton and granddaughter of Solomon Northup. At the end of the movie, it was Florence’s mother, Margaret Anne, who presents her first born, Solomon Northup Stanton, to her father.

From left to right: Christopher Bicksler (4th Great Grandson), Rebecca Bicksler (3rd Great Granddaughter), Melissa Howell (3rd Great Granddaughter), Gerald
From left to right: Christopher Bicksler (4th Great Grandson), Rebecca Bicksler (3rd Great Granddaughter), Melissa Howell (3rd Great Granddaughter), Gerald "Jay" Gaidmore (Director of Special Collections), and Jody Allen, (Visiting Assistant Professor and Director of the Lemon Project).

Christopher, Rebecca, and Melissa are but three of the dozens of descendants of Solomon Northup living across the United States from New York to California.

Florence A. Barber was born in New York in 1863 and married Dr. Philip L. Barber in 1886. They settled in Norfolk, Virginia, and from 1911 to 1931, Florence worked in the Norfolk school system and served as the system’s first science teacher. She died in Norfolk in 1941 and was buried next to her husband in Calvary Cemetery. Her diary includes brief daily entries about the weather, chores, and social life, trips to town, church, and attending meetings. She recounts her visits to churches and schools in Georgia and Alabama, like Atlanta University and Spelman College, both historically black schools. She also mentions teaching music, attending educational meetings in Portsmouth and being elected president of the local YMCA.

The diary has been digitized and is available online here: https://digitalarchive.wm.edu/handle/10288/20489.

Excerpt from the diary of Florence Barber (Mss. Acc. 2009.478)
Excerpt from the diary of Florence Barber (Mss. Acc. 2009.478)


When Swem’s Special Collections purchased this diary on eBay in 2009, it was attributed to an unknown woman living in Portsmouth, Virginia. William & Mary student, Lauren Wallace, under the guidance of Special Collections staff and Lemon Project director and Visiting Assistant Professor, Jody Allen, embarked on a project to identify the author. Scrutinizing clues from the diary and using sources available online and through Swem Library’s databases, she was able to identify with certainty that Florence Barber was the diarist. For more information on this project, please see http://www.wm.edu/research/ideation/arts-and-humanities/the-hunt-for-the-mystery-diarist3187.php.

In celebration of African American history month, Swem Library is hosting a screening of 12 Years a Slave from 2-5pm and again from 6-9pm on Wednesday, February 18.Then on Thursday, February 19 from 5:30-7:30pm, Dr. Jack Trammell will be discussing his book,  The Richmond Slave Trade: The Economic Backbone of the Old Dominion. Solomon Northup’s journey took him through Virginia when he was held briefly at the Goodwin-Templeton Slave Jail in Richmond before being sent to New Orleans. For Dr. Trammell's talk, Florence Barber's diary, a first edition of Twelve Years A Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853, from a Cotton Plantation near the Red River in Louisiana, published in 1853, and several letters written by slaves, will be on display.

Both events are being held in Swem Library's Botetourt Theatre and are free and open to the public.