Kentucky voicesimpact of '12 years a slave'

Al Smith: UK prof's working mom resurrected Solomon Northup's story

March 9, 2014 

Nearly 70 years ago, when I was working on the state desk of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, my favorite correspondent was Sue Eakin, a bright young woman who reported from Bunkie, a cotton-and-cane community in central Louisiana where she and her husband owned a weekly paper.

When I finally met her in person, it was 40 years after I had left Louisiana and she was by then professor Sue Eakin, the woman who discovered Solomon Northup's Twelve Years a Slave when she was in middle school. And she was the mother of my companion, Paul Eakin, a professor of math sciences at the University of Kentucky.

With us was my son-in-law, Bill Major, a UK graduate and a newly minted Ph.D. in American literature who had taken his first teaching job at a nearby small, two-year branch of the main campus of Louisiana State University.

Sue was 80 years old, the author of many books and acclaimed as the foremost authority on the black experiences on Louisiana's plantations before and after the Civil War. Over a feast of fresh Gulf shrimp and beer on the verandah at Walnut Grove Plantation owned by a sister at Alexandria, she related how as a girl she read Northup's narrative in the library of a neighboring plantation and it never left her.

This reunion was in 1998, and over the long twilight evening near the mossy tree-lined banks of Bayou Boeuf she recalled how she had spent 60 years documenting Northup's life, editing and annotating Twelve Years, locating the house of Northup's brutal owner, Edwin Epps (as well as his unmarked grave), and producing a map of the Bayou Boeuf (French for ox) plantation country in which Northup lived.

She did so while raising five children and earning graduate degrees in history and journalism.

Northup's story, which he had dictated and sold for $3,500 after he was rescued and returned to his New York state home, was a best-seller as sentiment for the abolition of slavery spread through the North in the 1850s on the eve of the Civil War.

But a century later it was out of print and forgotten when Eakin took her research to Louisiana State University Press and proposed a new edition. The editors resisted, noting that at that time she did not hold a doctorate and was teaching at a regional university.

When the editors proposed that she collaborate with a professor at the University of New Orleans who had the doctoral degree, she agreed as the price of publication. After all, she was a woman and this was the deep South still trying to cope with the civil rights movement, much less the advent of feminist protests against discrimination.

Nevertheless, she and Joseph Logsdon worked well with each other. She provided the expertise on Bayou Bouef and Northup's life as one of 300,000 plantation slaves whom she said provided Louisiana with the second-richest per capita income of any state at the outbreak of the Civil War. Logsdon researched Northup's life as a free man of color in New York and the legal case against Northup's kidnappers, none of whom were ever convicted, and wrote the introduction to the 1968 edition which, as Eakin noted, was fine since she had a family to raise and no leave from teaching to work on the book.

Eakin was 60 when she wrote a 600-page dissertation on the populist movement in Louisiana and had to threaten a lawsuit to earn a doctorate, over the objections of an unfriendly male academic adviser. Triumphing over some of the discrimination that had dogged her lifelong concern for equal rights, she was named one of LSU's five most distinguished professors when she retired.

She died in 2009, but would likely have approved of the film of 12 Years a Slave, which The New Yorker magazine reviewer called "the greatest feature film ever made about American slavery." She would have been pleased that it won the Best Picture Oscar, her son, Paul, said this week.

An article in the online The Daily Beast described Eakin as "the woman who saved Solomon" and "made the movie ... possible."

In his acceptance speech, the film's director Steve McQueen thanked Eakin. "She gave her life's work to preserving Solomon's book," he said.

But there was one last slight. Although the director and screenwriter said they followed the story line in the book, in the film credits, inexplicably, there was no mention of Sue Eakin.

Al Smith a veteran journalist and the founding host of KET's Comment on Kentucky, is working on his third memoir, to be published this fall.

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service