Louisiana Up Close: Epps House offers glimpse into Northup’s life as slave
The Epps House: Solomon Northup’s Gateway to Freedom Museum is located on the campus of LSU-Alexandria. The museum tells the story of Solomon Northup, who was a freed black man that was kidnapped and then sold into slavery. (Gazette photo by Raymond Partsch III)
By: RAYMOND PARTSCH III
ALEXANDRIA – Meredith Melancon couldn’t believe that more people didn’t know about Solomon Northup’s story.
“I was at LSU at the time and my Louisiana History professor made us read “12 Years as Slave,” Melancon said. “I had just started dating my husband who was from Avoyelles Parish. So I asked him about the story and he said he kind of heard of it but didn’t know it that well. I just couldn’t believe that people lived there didn’t know that story.”
Northup’s story is currently on display at the Epps House: Solomon Northup’s Gateway To Freedom Museum located on the campus of LSU at Alexandria.
Inside the single-story wood-frame Creole cottage visitors will learn about Northup’s time as a slave throughout central Louisiana, as well as the efforts of LSUA history professor Sue Eakin who helped save the Epps house.
Visitors will also learn facts about plantation life, slave life in Louisiana, Oakland Plantation (where LSUA is currently housed) and different artifacts from Eakin’s collection, as well as folk art items from the Alexandria Museum of Art.
The big draw, and the most significant, is the house itself because of its association to Northup.
The story of a free African-American man from Glens Falls, New York being kidnapped, sold into slavery and then spending a dozen years held in servitude is remarkable, and quite unique among slave narratives.
It was that story that fascinated, and began a lifelong passion, for Avoyelles Parish resident Richard Redman.
“It kind of started when I was about 13,” Redman said. “I was mowing grass for an older lady and she was about 90 at that time. She offered me some lemonade and went into house where she had the 1968 printing of “12 Years As A Slave,” and it was signed by Sue Eakin. She gave it to me as a gift.”
The Edwin Epps family home was constructed in 1852 on Bayou Boeuf in Avoyelles Parish. Epps, a planter and slave owner who owned Northup for a decade, hired a Canadian architect and carpenter named Samuel Bass to build the house, and Northup was assigned to assist Bass.
It was during this time that Northup, known as Platt to his slave owners, became friends with Bass, who later informed Northup’s family of his ordeal which helped Northup regain his freedom.
Northup would go on to write about his enslavement in the 1853 book “Twelve Years a Slave.”
The house as it stands today is only a sliver of the house that Northup helped construct.
With help from the Belmont Townsend Foundation, the house was moved in 1976 from Bayou Boeuf to Bunkie with the intention of preserving it and turning it into a museum. According to Melancon, “The house was meticulously torn down piece by piece and numbered by a Bunkie construction firm.”
The museum never came to be and the house slowly began to decay before a tornado damaged it to the point that the house began to lean forward.
Due to the efforts of Eakin, the house was relocated to LSUA (the location of former Oakland Plantation where Epps served as an overseer) in 1999 and eventually became a museum in January of 2014. But much of the original structure of the house were either not used in its reconstruction or were too damaged to be used.
As the house stands today, only the central dividing wall and the exposed beams, could have been touched by Northup when he helped Bass construct it more than 150 years ago.
Even though Melancon is disappointed that more of the original structure isn’t in the building, the Avoyelles Parish teacher is thrilled that the building was saved, unlike say the Pleasant Shaw House which is part of the Northup Trial.
“If it hadn’t been moved we would have lost it,” Melancon said. “The Shaw House was torn down in 1989. If it hadn’t been moved, the Epps House would have suffered the same fate.”
Redman meanwhile has always had more interest in the actual sites, a total of 15 with many of them now part of fields or private residences, where Northup worked, lived or visited.
“Years ago, I got a metal detector and I realized I still had that book that the old woman had given to me,” Redman said. “I would go to different sites mentioned in the book.”
“I remember a few years ago my child pulled something out of the ground, and he turned to me and said “is this something that maybe Solomon used? Every time I go to one of those sites it is an experience. You stand in the same spot that he did or other slaves did.”
Redman’s passion for Northup, and digging for items at sites, inspired him to reach out to the National Geographic Channel television show “Diggers.” The stars of the show, metal-detecting history buffs Tim Saylor and George Wyant visited the sites on the trail in January of 2015. The duo uncovered brass coins, chains, locks and other items.
“It was very touching,” Redman said. “Some of the executive producers told me it was one of their best shows. Some of Northup’s descendents were here and it was a pretty emotional experience.”
Northup’s story would go on to further inspire Melancon as she would write her master thesis at University of Louisiana-Lafayette on the Epps House and Northup Trail, as well as create a smart phone app. Melancon would go on to make the book mandatory reading for her sophomore students while she taught at Avoyelles Charter School.
Melancon for one believes that the museum, which has garnered more attention since the release of the Academy Award-winning film starring Chiwetel Ejifor and Michael Fassbender, can continue to serve multiple purposes in the years to come.
“It could provide a physical space that is connected with that past,” Melancon said. “I think it could be a truly symbolic place to host education debates and field trips for students. The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Connecticut hosts lecture series, discussions about present day slavery, etc. Epps House could be that for Central Louisiana. Epps could be a meeting place for that type of critical thinking and serious discussion.”