Twice a Slave
Inspired by his grandmother, Lillie Hanks Willis, and his cousin's Donnie Willis and Dr. Greene Wallace Strother, Randy Willis began researching and writing about Joseph Willis in 1980.
After writing Joseph Willis' biography and many articles on him, Randy got the idea for a novel based upon Joseph's life from his friend and fellow researcher Dr. Sue Eakin.
Dr. Eakin had first contacted Randy in 1981 after reading an article he had written about Joseph which mentioned that he had purchased the only copy of the Spring Hill Baptist Church minutes in existence and which had much information on William Prince Ford. Dr. Eakin asked Randy if he would help her with her research on Ford who had bought Solomon Northup, in 1841, and was an associate and friend of Joseph Willis.
Dr. Eakin wrote Randy Willis on March 7, 1984, "We had a wonderful experience dramatizing Northup and I think there could be a musical play on Joseph Willis. It seems to me it gets the message across far more quickly than routine written material." She added, "a fictional novel based upon Joseph Willis' life would be more interesting to the general public than a biography and would reach a greater audience."
This is how Randy Willis got the idea for both the novel and the play that later became "Twice a Slave."
Randy was often a guest lecturer, on the life of his 4th great-grandfather Joseph Willis, in Dr. Eakin's history classes at Louisiana State University at Alexandria. She specialized in Louisiana history, particularly the Old South plantation system. Dr. Eakin is best known for documenting, annotating, and reviving interest in the 1853 "Twelve Years a Slave," a slave narrative by Solomon Northup, a free man from New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. Dr. Eakin, at the age of eighteen, rediscovered a well-worn, long-forgotten copy of Solomon Northup’s book "Twelve Years a Slave" on the shelves of a popular bookstore near the LSU campus in Baton Rouge, the bookstore owner practically gave it to her for 25 cents.
"12 Years a Slave" won the 2013 Academy Award for Best Picture. In his acceptance speech for the honor, director McQueen thanked Dr. Eakin: "I'd like to thank this amazing historian, Sue Eakin, whose life, she gave her life's work to preserving Solomon's book.
Northup had little but praise for the Ford who bought him for $1,000 at a New Orleans slave market. In one passage of "Twelve Years a Slave"," Northrup wrote of Ford, "there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford."
Joseph Willis (1758-1854) kept a diary. He entrusted William Prince Ford with his diary. Notes from the diary were arranged into a manuscript and later copied by early Louisiana Baptist author, W. E. Paxton, in 1858, for his book "A History of the Baptist of Louisiana, from the Earliest Times to the Present," (1888). Paxton admits most of his facts concerning Louisiana Baptists are from Joseph Willis' diary and Louisiana Association Minutes. Joseph's diary and Ford's manuscript are both lost today.
Ford also made remarks in his manuscript based upon the diary. One of Ford's observations is recorded by Paxton and is very revealing concerning Ford's admiration of Joseph Willis. "Nearly all the churches now left in the association were gathered either directly or indirectly by the labors of Mr. Willis." Ford added, "It was truly affecting to hear him [Joseph Willis] speak of them as his children; and with all the affection of a father allude to some schisms and divisions that had arisen in the past and to warn them against the occurrence of anything of the kind in the future. But when he spoke of the fact that two or three of them had already become extinct, his voice failed and he was compelled to give utterance to his feelings by his tears; and surely the heart must have been hard that could not be melted by the manifestation of so much affection, for he wept not alone."
Ford was later excommunicated from Spring Hill Baptist Church that Joseph Willis founded. But, Ford remained a lifelong friend with his mentor Joseph Willis. After selling Northup to another slaveholder, Ford in 1843 converted, with most of his Baptist congregation, to the Churches of Christ, to which Ford had become influenced by the writings of Alexander Campbell. Campbell visited the congregation in 1857, at which time Campbell was favorably impressed by the fellowship practiced between blacks and whites in the congregation. Ford is buried in Cheneyville, Louisiana, in the Old Cheney cemetery.
Attached are three of the many letters (including the March 7, 1984 letter mentioned above) from Dr. Sue Eakin to Randy Willis.
Joseph Willis' life is a story of triumph over tragedy and victory over adversity!
• He was born into slavery. His mother was Cherokee and his father a wealthy English plantation owner.
• His family took him to court to deprive him of his inheritance (which would have made him the wealthiest plantation owner in all of Bladen County, North Carolina in 1776).
• He fought as a Patriot in the Revolutionary War under the most colorful of all the American generals, Francis Marion, The Swamp Fox.
• His first wife died in childbirth, and his second wife died only six years later, leaving him with five small children.
• He crossed the mighty Mississippi River at Natchez at the peril of his own life, carried by a mule!
• He entered hostile Spanish-controlled Louisiana Territory, when the dreaded Code Noir (Black Code) was in effect. It forbade any Protestant ministers who came into the territory from preaching.
• His life was threatened because of the message he brought to Spanish-controlled Louisiana!
• His own denomination refused to ordain him because of his race.
• Joseph Willis preached the first Gospel sermon by an Evangelical west of the Mississippi River.
• After overcoming insurmountable obstacles, he blazed a trail for others for another half-century that changed Louisiana history.
• His accomplishments are still felt today.
4th great-grandson of Joseph Willis
"According to his testimony, his father was English and his mother of Cherokee Native American ancestry; he was born in 1758 in Bladen County, North Carolina, and was a 'Marion' man." (John Pinckney Durham and John S. Ramond, Baptist Builders in Louisiana, Shreveport, Louisiana, Durham-Ramond Publishers, 1934) p15.
A contemporary of Joseph Willis and the greatest Baptist historian of his generation, David Benedict wrote, in 1813, that "...Joseph Willis... has done much for the cause, and spent a large fortune while engaged in the ministry, often at the hazard of his life, while the State [Louisiana] belonged to the Spanish government." That date would place Joseph Willis in Louisiana, west of the Mississippi River, before October 1, 1800, the date Napoleon secured Louisiana from Spain.
Benedict's statement also establishes Joseph Willis as preaching the first Gospel sermon by an evangelical west of the Mississippi River. (David Benedict, A General History of the Baptist Denomination in America and Other Parts of the World, Boston: Printed by Lincoln and Edmonds,1813)
Joseph Willis had become accustomed to great obstacles. Decades before his first venture west, in 1798, his family (which included 5 of the 20 wealthiest plantation owners, in North Carolina) took him to court, in 1777, to deprive him of his vast inheritance - a battle that involved the first governor of the newly formed state of North Carolina.
Joseph Willis, never daunted, fought in the Revolutionary War, as a Patriot, under the most colorful of all the American generals, Francis Marion, "The Swamp Fox."
After the Revolutionary War, Joseph Willis, along with Richard Curtis and William Thompson, constituted a church, called 'The Baptist Church on Buffaloe' [sic] near Woodville, Mississippi, in October of 1798. (W.E. Paxton,A History of the Baptist of Louisiana, from the Earliest Times to the Present, 1888) p 33.
Joseph Willis was greatly affected by First Great Awakening preacher's George Whitefield and Shubal Stearns and crossed the Mississippi River at the very beginning of the Second Great Awakening, between 1798 and 1800, thus becoming the first evangelical foreign missionary to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ west of the Mississippi River.
According to his son, Joseph Willis Jr., Joseph Willis crossed the mighty Mississippi River at Natchez, to preach the Gospel, riding only a mule and at the peril of his own life.
Joseph Willis entered this most hostile land, the Spanish claimed Louisiana Territory, before October 1, 1800, and was there too from October 1, 1800, to April 30, 1803, while it was the French claimed Louisiana Territory. The dreaded Code Noir, the "Black Code," was in effect during this time, which forbade the coming of any ministers into the territory except Roman Catholics. Joseph Willis defied this most terrifying rule of law by traveling into the heart of the Black Code, as far south as Lafayette, Louisiana, preaching the Gospel, at the risk of his own life.
The message that Joseph Willis brought with him would cause them to try to kill him! He would live for another 58 years, establishing churches, preaching Jesus, and over coming obstacle after obstacle.