Aunt Sue and Solomon Northup

CDSP Board Member Don White tells his family story about Twelve Years a Slave

Growing up in central Louisiana, the Rev. Dr. P. Donald White, Jr. felt he had a cousin whom he’d never met. His maternal aunt, Sue Eakin, a historian who taught at the Louisiana State University’s Alexandria campus, was always talking about someone named Solomon Northup. Five decades later, thanks to the film “Twelve Years a Slave,” which garnered Oscar wins on March 3rd for best supporting actress, best adapted screenplay and best picture, much of the country knows who Northup was. Still, relatively few who watched the show or saw the film know that White’s aunt was the individual responsible for proving that Northup was a real person and that his story of being a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery had occurred. The Oscar-winning film was based on Northrup’s autobiography, "Twelve Years a Slave."

“His story was around in my mind as long as I have been alive,” said White, an alumnus of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (MDiv 1991) and a trustee of the seminary. “If Sue was around it usually came up in some way or other because she was always discovering new things, new proof that he was a real person.”

Eakin, who died in 2009 at the age of 90, first read Northup’s book, Twelve Years a Slave, which is set in central Louisiana, while visiting a plantation near her home at the age of 12. “It just fascinated her,” White said, but people told her the book was fictitious. Five years later, as a freshman at Louisiana State University, Eakin found the book again, in Claitor’s, a well-known local bookstore, where the proprietor sold it to her for a quarter and told her that it was fictitious and full of lies. “She spent the rest of her life proving it wasn’t.

Eakin’s and White’s families lived in the area in which many of the film events were depicted. White describes the community as one in which people knew each other and were familiar with each other’s ancestors. In fact, he grew up knowing some of the descendants of the first so-called “owner” of Solomon Northup, William Ford.

Eakin used her skills as a historian and her knowledge of local Louisiana families and culture to find documentary evidence that Northup lived most of his life in Saratoga Springs, New York, was kidnapped in Washington, D. C., and sold into slavery in Louisiana. Northup was rescued after a Canadian abolitionist learned of Northup’s plight and launched a letter campaign that eventually set in motion events that led to Northup’s release.

The book "Twelve Years a Slave" was published in 1853, about a year after Northup’s liberation.  The book created a sensation because it seemed to validate the picture of southern slave life portrayed by Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which had been published one year earlier, and was set 60 miles from the plantation where Northup had been enslaved. Within several years, however, his book went out of print and remained so until 1968, when Eakin and Joseph Logsdon, then a professor of history at the University of New Orleans, published a new heavily annotated edition. This edition verified much of Northup’s story, and has since been read and discussed in college courses. “I knew the story,” said White, “but when you read the text, it’s very, very powerful to read about a man who was free and then suddenly becomes enslaved.”

 “Like many members of my family, Sue believed in social justice, and she was a truth teller,” continued White, a retired priest and commercial real estate developer who joined the CDSP board in 2011. He added, “Even when telling the truth was controversial, Sue had the courage to speak the truth. Part of the truth she told helped us to see not only the evil of 19th century slavery, but the racism that continues to infect our society. There is no question that Sue's work and scholarship has and continues to confront our society and moves us closer together.”

White has seen the film, and says it “slaps you in the face, makes you realize how terrible the institution of slavery was.” He agrees with a chorus of other supporters of the film that it should be made available for high school viewing and discussions. “It shows the true brutality of the slave system.”

 White says he is sobered by the fact that the first man to hold Northup in captivity was a preacher. “He was a Baptist preacher, his brother was a Baptist preacher in northern Louisiana, and they were very committed to God as they knew God. Solomon described them as kind, but they were still blinded to the fact of the inhumanity of the whole institution.”

 As White watched the 86th Academy Awards show, he recalled that his aunt had written of her hope that Northup’s book would one day be made into a film. “Sue would have been stunned and beside herself with joy to know that it not only became a film but also that for the first time Hollywood conferred their most prestigious best picture award to the work of a black director.”

© 2012 Church Divinity School of the Pacific