Sue Eakin thanked onstage at Oscars for work verifying story of ‘12 Years a Slave’
A Louisiana historian who dedicated decades to researching the 1853 book “Twelve Years a Slave” received international attention Sunday when the film based on the book won the Academy Award for best picture.
During his acceptance speech, the film’s director thanked Sue Eakin, a Rapides Parish native and historian whose research for the 1968 LSU Press edition of the book helped prove the veracity of the story of Solomon Northup, a free man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery.
“I’d like to thank this amazing historian, Sue Eakin, whose life, she gave her life’s work to preserving Solomon’s book,” director Steve McQueen said while accepting the Oscar.
“Twelve Years a Slave” tells the firsthand account of Northup, who was kidnapped, enslaved at plantations in central Louisiana and freed to return to his family.
Eakin was 12 when she read an original edition of the book in the early 1930s. She found her own copy at a Baton Rouge bookstore when she entered LSU in 1936, according to an essay she wrote later in life, and dedicated her graduate studies in history at LSU and at the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now University of Louisiana at Lafayette) to researching the book. She died at 90 in 2009.
“I think it’s vital that everyone understands it’s a true story and there’s a lady from Louisiana who spent her lifetime dedicated to authenticating it,” said her son, Frank Eakin, of The Woodlands, Texas, who broke into tears when McQueen mentioned his mother from the stage.
“The very last thing I expected was that recognition,” he said.
When the book was published in the 1850s, it became a popular best-seller, said Raphael Cassimere Jr., a retired professor at the University of New Orleans.
“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,” Cassimere told The Advocate in October.
Some locals regarded Northup’s book as fiction when Sue Eakin first read the memoir.
Sue Eakin, who commuted to Baton Rouge from her home in Bunkie to complete her master’s degree in the 1950s and 1960s, researched the people and places mentioned in Northup’s memoir of enslavement at plantation in the Bayou Boeuf area. In the 1960s, she began working with Joseph Logsdon, a professor at LSU-New Orleans, now the University of New Orleans, to create a scholarly edition of the book.
Sue Eakin investigated all the Louisiana people and places mentioned in the work, while Logsdon focused on researching Northup’s home in Saratoga, N.Y., and other places of interest in the north. Their 1968 annotated edition reintroduced Northup’s story to college students across the country, who read it in history classes.
“If that hadn’t happened, then none of the other things could have happened,” said MaryKatherine Callaway, director of LSU Press. “It took their work first to begin this whole journey toward this film.”
Filmed at south Louisiana plantations and in New Orleans, “12 Years a Slave” earned $50 million worldwide and won three awards Sunday. Lupita Nyong’o won best supporting actress for her role as Patsey. Screenwriter John Ridley, who said in media interviews he leaned heavily upon the LSU Press edition of the book, won best adapted screenplay.
Logsdon and Eakin continued researching Northup’s story after their 1968 edition rescued the book from obscurity. When Logsdon died at 61 in 1999, he was planning a trip to New York to investigate Northup’s mysterious disappearance, Cassimere said in October.
Descendants of the slave owners and other characters in the book approached her with archives of family history while she taught history at LSU at Alexandria, Frank Eakin said.
Sue Eakin published her final annotated version of “Twelve Years a Slave” in 2007 when she was 88.
Editor’s note: This story was changed on March 4, 2014 to correctly spell MaryKatherine Callaway’s name.