Years of obscurity Two Louisiana historians put ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ in spotlight

Solomon Northup’s story in the film “12 Years a Slave” may never have seen the screen if not for two dedicated Louisiana historians.

More than a century after its initial publication, Northup’s memoir was known to few outside of the academic world before a new edition edited by Sue Eakin, then an University of Southwestern Louisiana history student, and Joseph Logsdon, a New Orleans history professor, helped the world rediscover the harrowing tale.

After separately discovering the story, Eakin and Logsdon each tracked down scores of historical documents supporting Northup’s account and published the proof in their 1968 LSU Press edition.

“Without their work, it would probably have been dismissed as hearsay to a certain extent and challenged,” said Dawn Logsdon, the 52-year-old daughter of Joseph Logsdon who lives in San Francisco. “It’s nice to have that sort of authentication behind it.”

Filmed at south Louisiana plantations and in New Orleans, “12 Years a Slave” tells the story of Northup, a free man from upstate New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana.

Northup’s memoir, “Twelve Years a Slave,” was written months after gaining his freedom. It sold 30,000 copies in 1853, causing a sensation, said Raphael Cassimere Jr., 71, a retired professor at the University of New Orleans who worked with Joseph Logsdon.

“Timing was bad, because even though it sold 30,000 copies, which was a lot for a book, it came out a year after ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ and it kind of was forgotten for some time, except by local people,” said Cassimere.

Outside of Louisiana and New York, where Northup lived, the story was forgotten to the general public, and in the 20th century, the book could not be found outside of a few bookstores.

As a 12-year-old, Sue Eakin discovered the book when she accompanied her father to a business meeting at a planation home near Cheneyville one afternoon. The host led her to the library and handed her a book.

“I began reading the old book as excitedly as I could, becoming more and more excited with every page,” Eakin later wrote.

She had never read a book with places she knew from central Louisiana. She searched for her own copy, but did not find it until she started college at LSU in 1936, six years later.

At Claitor’s bookstore in Baton Rouge, she ran across the 1853 edition.

“What do you want that for?” the store’s owner asked her, according to an essay she wrote before her death. “There ain’t nothing to that old book. Pure fiction. You can have it for 25 cents.”

“I have spent the last 70 years proving him wrong,” Eakin wrote later.

While commuting to Baton Rouge from Bunkie to earn her master’s degree in history at LSU in the 1950s and ’60s, Eakin searched for records across the state that would back up Northup’s story.

“When I was growing up, Solomon Northup was always there, he was like my brother,” said Eakin’s son, Frank Eakin, 52, of The Woodlands, Texas.

In a Louisiana history course at LSU-New Orleans (now the University of New Orleans) in 1965, Logsdon learned of Northup’s story when a student brought her family’s copy of “Twelve Years a Slave” to class. Bound in tissue paper and rubber bands, the woman’s family had written notes in the margins, Cassimere said.

Logsdon approached LSU Press about updating the book. Editors at LSU put him in touch with Eakin, and the two became a team.

While Eakin searched across Louisiana for documents, Logsdon traveled to New York, visiting Saratoga Springs, where Northup lived before and after his abduction. He would check train and boat records during family trips, said Dawn Logsdon, who has combed through letters between her father and Eakin.

“I think what’s interesting is looking through the papers, the process of discovery is a lot like a detective,” she said. “It’s fascinating to see how they unravel the story.”

Their 1968 edition of the book was well-received and became required reading at universities across the country. The screenwriter of the new film, John Ridley, told the New York Times he leaned heavily upon their work.

Neither Eakin nor Logsdon quit working on Northup’s tale. Just before Logsdon died in 1999 at 61, he planned to travel to New York to investigate Northup’s death, Cassimere said. Eakin earned her doctorate in history at the University of Southwestern Louisiana at 60 and published a final edition of her work on Northup in 2007. She died in 2009 at 90.

Their families say they would have enjoyed seeing such an ambitious film made of Northup’s life. It would have led more people to his amazing tale, Dawn Logsdon said.

“For him, I think it was incredibly important to have a firsthand account of slavery out there,” she said, “especially a compelling one that told from the first-person what it was really like.”