U.S. News

10.20.13

The Woman Who Saved Solomon

Solomon Northup’s story is so extraordinary that it seems incredible. Meet the civil rights crusader who rescued him from obscurity and made the movie 12 Years a Slave possible.

Last month, I wrote an article for The Daily Mail about the true story of Solomon Northup, a slave whose harrowing experiences form the basis of the movie 12 Years A Slave. As anyone who has seen the film will testify, Northup endured no end of brutality at the hands of various plantation managers and overseers, all of which are graphically depicted in Steve McQueen’s new film.

When I filed the piece, my editor called to express some reservations. “It’s a great piece,” he said. “But it sounds like a bunch of bollocks. It reads like a 19th Century misery memoir.” (For those not familiar for British English slang, ‘a bunch of bollocks’ can roughly be defined as a ‘load of old cobblers’. I trust that helps.)

I told my editor that I had initially shared his misgivings. My stock-in-trade is exposing fantasists and frauds, and I’ve now reached the stage in which I barely believe any memoir. Indeed, Northup’s tale is so extraordinary, that it does seem incredible.

In brief—and this paragraph contains some plot spoilers—Northup was born a free man in New York in 1808, worked on a farm, got married, had three children, and made ends meet by playing his violin and working as a cart driver. In March 1841, he met two men who persuaded him to go to Washington, D.C with an offer of employment. But it was a ruse; Northup was kidnapped, flogged, and sold for $1,000 at a slave market in New Orleans. For the next twelve years, he was forced to pick cotton and cut sugar cane, being whipped and beaten on an almost daily basis. Unable to contact his family, Northup was eventually freed thanks to a sympathetic carpenter and abolitionist who contacted a New York lawyer on his behalf.

After his release, Northup wrote a book called Twelve Years A Slave. It sold some 30,000 copies—a huge amount—before eventually falling out of print and into obscurity.

At the time, the public appeared to believe his story, but to modern eyes it does indeed look suspicious. Kidnapped? For twelve years? Really? Surely this was a fraud—and a fraud on a grand scale. Northup, if he ever existed, must have been laughing all the way to the Hoosick Savings Bank in Rensselaer County.

However, as fun as it is unearthing hokum and baloney, the story of Solomon Northup is a great disappointment to mythbusters and cynical editors—it’s pretty much all true.

But how can we know this? Surely the events are now unverifiable? The proof lies in the form of a remarkable woman called Sue Eakin. The chances are you won’t have heard of Eakin, a mother of five from the small town of Bunkie, Louisiana, who died four years ago at the age of ninety. When 12 Years A Slave inevitably breaks box office records and wins truckloads of awards, it would be nice at some stage if somebody gave a little credit to Eakin, without whom the movie would never have happened.

To find out why, we must go back to 1930, when Eakin was just 12 years old. The eldest of 12 children, nine of whom would survive into adulthood, Sue’s parents were desperately poor farmers. One summer day she accompanied her father to a plantation house, where he was conducting some business.

While she waited, the owner of the house gave the Eakin a book to read. It was the original edition of Twelve Years a Slave.

“I began reading the old book as rapidly as I could,” Eakin recalled many decades later, “becoming more and more excited with every page.”

Eakin recognized local place names, as well as those of local families. Unable to finish the book before her father left, Eakin was disappointed not to be able to borrow it. “I searched for a copy of the book in stores and libraries, but one was nowhere to be found,” she said.

However, six years later, when she was attending Louisiana State University, Eakin chanced upon a copy in a local bookstore. She asked the owner how much it cost. “What do you want that for?” he asked. “There ain’t nothing to that old book. Pure fiction. You can have it for 25 cents.”

As Eakin later observed, “I spent the next seventy years proving him wrong.”

131017-so-12-years-slave-tease
Francois Duhamel/Fox Searchlight

And prove him wrong Eakin did. What became an exercise in curiosity soon became an obsession. While she juggled her roles as a wife, mother, and freelance journalist, she spent every spare hour researching the life of Solomon Northup. As her eldest son Paul M. Eakin Jr., 71, now says, “We grew up with Solomon—we refer to him as our older brother.”

Afternoons would be spent driving to small courthouses to pore over records that would verify Northup’s story. “Her mission was to authenticate every fact,” says Dr. Eakin, a retired math professor. “Every name, every river, every distance, railroad, bridge, relationship.”

And as years went by, it became apparent that Northup’s story was true. But what motivated Eakin was not a desire to verify, but something far more important: civil rights.

“The root of her obsession was not precisely with Solomon,” says Dr. Eakin, “but with the proper history of black people and white people and how they lived together under various circumstances. She was a student of the American South, and the broad sweep of relationships and how we got to where we are. And obviously slavery played a huge part of that.”

When her children grew up in the 1940s and 1950s in Louisiana, Eakin was adamant that they would treat blacks equal to whites. She even collected black dolls, a rarity in the Deep South at that time.

Bunkie, Louisiana itself was split in half by a railroad track, with black and whites living on either side. Eakin did her best to make the division as permeable as possible.

“We always had black friends and she had black friends” says Eakin’s daughter, Dr. Sara Eakin Kuhn, 64, who, like her brother, is a retired professor. “That was considered odd. The fact that my mother would encourage such relationships was seen as an example of how supposedly weird we were.”

But Eakin’s activism was not just restricted to mixing with black people. She once took her mother and children to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak. “We were the only white people in a crowd of perhaps 12,000,” Paul Eakin recalls, “and we had absolutely no concern for our safety.” Today, Eakin doubts whether four black people would be as safe in a similar sized crowd of whites.

In Bunkie, Eakin also arranged concerts in the local auditorium. On one occasion, she invited the Southern University Choir to sing to an audience of some five hundred. Because the choristers were black, there was, in Eakin’s words, seen in this little-watched video posted to YouTube, “a great furor over it”.

She received phone calls wondering which doors the black people would use and where they would sit. Some white attendees brought their guns to the auditorium in case there was an ‘uprising’. “Instead it was the most wonderful event that Bunkie’s ever had,” Eakin recalled.

“I did what I thought was right,” she said at the time. “I’m not trying to run a popularity contest.”

At the age of 42, the energetic Eakin enrolled as a graduate student at Louisiana State in Baton Rouge, where she gained two master’s degrees. And in 1968, LSU Press published her annotated edition of Northup’s book, the fruits of thirty years of research. It was a formidable achievement, and it showed the world that Northup’s experiences were all too savagely real.

But Eakin was never the type to rest. When she was sixty, she received her doctorate in history, and she would spend the last third of her life as a professor, writer, and researcher. Even though her research interests were considerably broad, one central thread remained unbroken—Solomon Northup.

Even in the last months of her life, Eakin was researching Northup’s story. She suspected that Northup may not have been kidnapped, but had been willingly involved in a scam that had massively backfired. In addition, she also had an inkling—impossible to verify—that Northup may have been killed by those who he later testified against. As her daughter Sara says, Eakin “ended up thinking that maybe Solomon was a bit of a rascal”.

It is to Eakin’s undying credit that she would never be blind to the potential faults of a man in whom she had invested a lifetime’s energy. Such flexibility and disinterest is the mark of a truly great scholar, and a person who deserves to be remembered in amongst the razzmatazz of Hollywood’s depiction of a figure that she personally made so important.

Susan Eakin’s enhanced edition of Twelve Years A Slave is available as an ebook.

Guy Walters’s latest book, Nazis, Spies & Fakes, is out now on amazon.com