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As descendant of '12 Years' author, West End man seeks to educate

James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Clayton Adams, a great-great-great grandson of Solomon Northup, who was kidnapped in 1841 and taken into slavery even though he was a free man, sits for a portrait Friday November 1, 2013 at his home in the West End.

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By Bob Karlovits
Monday, Nov. 4, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Clayton Adams has a personal interest in the story of “12 Years a Slave.”

He is the great-great-great-grandson of Solomon Northup, whose story is told in the wide-release film based on Northup's 1853 autobiography. The film has fueled the West End man's efforts to make sure more people know about his ancestor.

“I want to make sure the story is passed, generation to generation,” he says. “I want to make sure people know the story.”

Adams, 43, is trying to arrange speaking engagements at local schools and theaters to discuss the Northup story.

Such talks are not unusual to him. On Nov. 4, he gave a lecture at Pittsburgh Classical Academy in the West End. Several weeks ago, he was the guest speaker at a fundraiser for the Underground Railroad History Project in Albany, N.Y. That city is not far from Saratoga Springs, where Northup, in 1841, was tricked into joining two men who eventually imprisoned him in a slave pen.

Adams also attends — and, sometimes, speaks — at the annual Solomon Northup Day celebration, which began in 1999 in Saratoga Springs and was declared an annual event in 2002 by the town's mayor.

He is a collector of memorabilia from such events and also is the owner of an 1854 rebound edition of “12 Years a Slave.”

Adams was told of Northup's story by his mother when he was growing up in Syracuse, N.Y. But its significance didn't strike him until he was studying black literature at the Cortland campus of the State University of New York.

“Hey, I know that guy,” he recalls saying when he saw a reference to “12 Years a Slave” in a book about slave experiences. He began to research Northup's story and his family, discovering he was descended from Northup's son, Alonzo, who was born in 1836.

Adams, who lives with his wife, India, and four children in the West End, says he was inspired by the dedication Northup had to his family.

“All the time he was in slavery, he kept saying to himself, ‘I just want to get through this if it means I can get back to my family,'” he says.

Such dedication always is the key to family life, he says.

“We all have to support one another,” Adams says.

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7852.

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