Twelve Years a Slave: A Life-Changing Book

By Dr. Thomas Cloer, Jr.

Special to The Courier

hen I heard that a slave narrative existed, I had to have a copy. First published in 1853, readers now can obtain a copy of Solomon Northup’s narrative “Twelve Years a Slave” from Penguin



Books or your local library. Some readers of books may be familiar with the phenomenon of reading something that changes oneself forever. The narrative of Northup, a free black man kidnapped in Washington in 1841, sold into slavery and not rescued until 1853 from a cotton plantation near the Red River in Louisiana, changed me forever.

I knew of some of the horrors related to that tragic part of our history in the South, but I had never heard it firsthand from someone who had endured it, survived it and then written eloquently about it in great detail.

I have also never read a personal diary of a Cherokee living in Eastatoee, Jocassee or Keowee. It would be as precious as gold to have such a perspective. It might cause others to look at Indian fighters from a different point of view. Sequoia first invented “talking leaves” with the Cherokee syllabary in the 1820, making written language a reality for the tribe. But by then, Cherokees had ceded their lands in Pickens, Oconee, Anderson and Greenville counties.

Slaves in America were punished severely if caught trying to develop literacy. The people responsible for keeping them illiterate knew that literacy was dangerous as a key to upward mobility, thus causing virtually all slaves to be incapable of writing down a firsthand account.

Anne Frank’s Diary is another life-changing book, because people in hiding for their lives like Anne and the others were not always jotting down their thoughts during such times. We are poignantly affected by the little Dutch girl who gave us a firsthand account of her innermost thoughts while hiding and trying to avoid concentration camps and death under the Nazis. It is especially emotional for me, because after she and the others were betrayed, Anne died in such a camp very close to my birth date in spring 1945; she was only 15.

My point is that perspective matters; it really matters. I contend that Jim Crow segregation laws in the South were perpetuated like they were in part because there were no written histories from the perspective of slaves. Some great thinker once said, “Nothing is more fatal to prejudice than familiarity.”


Actions of


Whenever I read a book, I always write all over it. But the most poignant notes I make are in the front and back pages, where I put the page numbers and the main thoughts I want to remember from the books. I go to these notes now to report what affected me most in the book.

After Northup was drugged, kidnapped and placed in a slave holding pen, he wrote eloquently about how the keeper of the slave pen, a Mr. Freeman, “was out among his animals early in the morning…getting his property ready for the sales-room intending, no doubt, to do that day a rousing business.” This is a critical point in understanding anything about slavery. Slavery was about property and the money associated with that property. The disrespect shown to humans was unconscionable. Northup wrote that when customers came to look over the bodies of the would-be property, Mr. Freeman “was very loquacious, dwelling at much length upon our several good points and qualities…customers would feel of our hands and arms and bodies…make us open our mouths and show our teeth, precisely as a jockey examines a horse which he is about to barter for or purchase.” Men and women were taken to a “small house in the yard, stripped, and inspected more minutely.”

God help us. How could this happen in a country that began with the mantra, “All men are created equal?”

Life-Changing: Pity

No author has affected me and aroused my pity the way Northup did when he wrote about a female slave in the holding pen, Eliza, and how Freeman sold her to one owner, and her children, little Randall and Emily, to others. A planter of Baton Rouge had little Randall run, jump and perform many feats to show how active he could be. All the while, his mother was weeping loudly and begging the planter to buy her and Emily too, so the family wouldn’t be separated. The planter simply said he couldn’t afford that. “Eliza burst into a paroxysm of grief, weeping plaintively.” Mr. Freeman threatened her with a hundred lashes from a whip if she didn’t stop. Northup made it clear that Freeman’s threat did not scare Eliza as much as the possibility of separating her family. “She kept on begging and beseeching them most piteously, not to separate the three.” She promised over and over again “how very faithful and obedient she would be; how hard she would labor day and night, to the last moment of her life, if he would only buy them all together.” Northup wrote that he, too, would have cried if he had dared.

Northup and Eliza contracted smallpox in waiting to be bought, and both survived, but their value was diminished. When Eliza was bought, the agony returned because now Eliza and her only other child, Emily, would be separated. Northup wrote, “By this time she (the mother) had become haggard and hollow-eyed with sickness and with sorrow. It would be a relief if I could consistently pass over in silence the scene that now ensued. It recalls memories more mournful and affecting than any language can portray….never have I seen such an exhibition of intense, unmeasured and unbounded grief, as when Eliza was parted from her child.” Eliza never saw or heard of little Randall or Emily again.

Life-Changing: View Concerning a Slave Owner

I guess things are relative. The man who first bought Solomon Northup was a Baptist minister. Northup made it crystal clear throughout his narrative that he had great respect for this man, Reverend William Ford. Northup’s respect for Rev. Ford began to grow from the outset, when the minister was affected by Eliza’s unmitigated grief because of being separated from her children. Rev. Ford asked to buy Eliza’s daughter and wanted to know the price. The hard-hearted Mr. Freeman said she wasn’t for sale. There would be “heaps and piles of money to be made of her, he said, when she was a few years older.” Rev. Ford insisted that he would make a reasonable offer just to avoid separating them, but separation was not the factor that Freeman saw as most important; it was the money to be made.

Northup was even impressed with the preacher’s understanding of scripture, and how it influenced his master’s life for the better. The good minister taught kindness toward each other, dependence upon God, and the rewards coming for those who lead a righteous life. The preacher reminded me of a sermon I heard once titled “What We Believe About the Nature of God Matters.” Northup wrote that when the slaves looked into the good preacher’s face, the preacher “spoke of the loving kindness of the Creator, and the life that is to come.”

Northup explained that most people see the buying and selling of humans as incompatible with any conception of a moral or religious life. But Northup wrote in his narrative that by being Rev. Ford’s slave, he had a golden opportunity to learn the preacher’s true character and disposition. “I say, in my opinion, there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford…Were all men such as he, slavery would be deprived of half its bitterness.” Wow!

Well, if a man such as Rev. Ford held what he believed to be ultimately correct answers regarding moral and ethical behavior, how could he be a part of such an ungodly, immoral, despicable and degrading institution as slavery? The answer comes quickly to mind, and is simply “Money.”

However, it was incredible for me to read Northup’s insight into how people could slide down the slippery slope to embracing slavery, even when they were kind and gentle as was Rev. Ford. No one could have explained it better than the slave himself. “The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of slavery. He never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection. Looking through the same medium with his fathers before him, he saw things in the same light.” In my opinion of those “influences and associations,” none were stronger or dominated thinking more than money, the root of all evil.

Of course Solomon’s 12-year narrative would not have had the effect that it had were it not for other masters who, by law, would have complete control over Northup. Their control would be different from that of Rev. Ford, and would be characterized by violence, cruelty and the regular use of a whip.

Life-Changing: Cruelty

The good preacher, Rev. Ford, began to have problems financially. His brother needed money right when Rev. Ford was indebted to a Mr. Tibeats for building sawmills, a weaving house, and corn mill for the preacher. The need for money became the primary reason for the preacher selling 18 of his slaves, Northup included, to John M. Tibeats.

Northup wrote in his narrative that John Tibeats was the opposite of the Rev. Ford. Tibeats was quick-tempered, spiteful, ignorant and had a revengeful disposition. It wasn’t long before Tibeats decided it was time to teach Northup a lesson. Tibeats ordered Northup to strip so that the whip would have greater effect. Northup said he would not, and instead took the whip and flogged his new master. This was punishable by death. But as Northup was to be lynched, there was intercession for him, and he was spared. I won’t spoil that part of the story.

Tibeats meant to kill the defiant slave, but Northup was no ordinary slave. The final fight that sent Northup into the swamps fearing for his life was nothing short of epic. Who would be his savior? Read the book and find out for yourselves.

Northup’s next master was Edwin Epps, a drunken, crazed farmer whose main delight was whipping his slaves just to hear them scream. When his slaves hoed corn, the fastest slave would be put ahead of the others. If any other slave passed him, the first leader was whipped. If one fell behind among the workers, that one was whipped. The whip was lashing from first light until dark.

On the first day of picking cotton, slaves were whipped steadily and made to pick as rapidly as humanly possible. That night the cotton was weighed. The original weight was the amount that a slave must pick every day thereafter, or take a lashing with the whip. Never was a slave allowed to pick less than 200 pounds of cotton per day. If that happened, the whip was readily applied.

The slaves only had 10 or 15 minutes to swallow down cold bacon stored in a gourd and a drink of water, also from a gourd, for their lunch; they worked until it was too dark to see. Their cabins had no floors or windows. For 10 years, Northup’s bed would be a sawmill board 12 inches wide and 10 feet long. His pillow was a stick of wood. An hour before daylight, a horn would blow. Any slave found in the cabin after daylight would be flogged severely. Slaves were given a little corn and bacon once a week. They had to grind their own corn, add a little water and cook it after working hours. Master Epps’ hogs received shelled corn. Northup and the other slaves had their corn thrown to them in ears.


It is incredible that Solomon Northup was kidnapped and sold into slavery in what would become Washington, D.C., the center of freedom and democracy for the entire planet. Northup staggered down Pennsylvania Avenue in cuffs, the same place where on August 28, 1963, another African-American declared, “I have a dream today; I have a dream!” Several decades after that speech, the first black president, Barack, was elected and installed in the nation’s White House.

Much of this progress has happened during my life. It gave rise to an insight I have never heard uttered, so here it is: If portions of our beloved America can change this much, can go from the flogging and cruelty of slavery, and from laws that denied black people basic rights, to electing a black President of the United States of America, I believe that we might even one day aspire to have people from all walks of life — Muslims and Christians, Arabs and Jews, gays and straights — better tolerating one another, while remaining very different, but living in peace on this Earth, and having good will for all. I, too, have a dream.

About the Author: Dr. Thomas Cloer Jr. is a professor emeritus at Furman University. He was honored as a recipient of the Maiden Invitational Award from Furman University’s Office of Multicultural Affairs. The award is given to a faculty member for outstanding assistance to international and minority students.