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One Port Hudson family looks to the movie 'Emancipation' for clarity
Bobbie Seymour heard of Peter Jackson, 1804, eight years ago and began tracking her family lineage. She believes her findings are connecting her family's legacy to Whipped Peter.
As the anticipated movie Emancipation releases this weekend, three generations of one Port Hudson, La., family are watching intensely. Not because of the fame that Will Smith brings nor for the local connection but one far greater: family legacy.
In 1804, the Jackson family’s paternal head Peter Jackson was born in Virginia and enslaved at President Andrew Jackson’s plantation. According to records found by Jackson's fourth great-granddaughter Bobbie Seymour, Peter was a farmer and at least one of his children—Larkin—died in St. Landry Parish.
The lineage becomes unclear until she discovers her grandfather’s grandfather Aaron Peter Jackson’s military records that indicate he ended up in military service as a sergeant in the Corps d’Afrique at Port Hudson in 1864, during the Siege of Port Hudson.
These are facts Seymour has been able to amass since learning of her patriarch eight years ago. Through official genealogical records including military files, family portraits, slave purchasing documents, and death certificates, Seymour has pieced together a significant amount of the Jackson family tree.
But what happened between the birth of Larkin and Jackson’s 3-year commission in the 78th Regiment of Colored Infantry in Port Hudson?
The complete answer may be revealed in Emancipation’s depiction of Whipped Peter, the man Seymour and other Jackson relatives believe to be their forefather.
As it has been recorded, Whipped Peter escaped slavery from John and Bridget Lyons in St. Landry Parish, after being severely beaten by the overseer.
One account tells how Peter—also called Gordon— was beaten for planning a revolt, other accounts explain that with slavery’s brutality no reason was required for an enslaved person to be severely beaten. Whatever the reason was, Peter’s beating was so severe it caused him to hallucinate for two months, threatening to kill everyone including his wife. This account he did not remember although he shared details of it with Union soldiers who photographed him after he escaped to Baton Rouge in 1863.
Photos of Peter were reproduced by the thousands in publications and as carte-de-visite. His photo quickly spread across the nation. It was used as a powerful rebuttal to the lies that enslaved people were treated humanely. The photo shows an elderly man sitting with his back to the camera revealing a web of keloids, crisscrossed scars, and whelps from his buttocks to his neck.
Aaron Peter Jackson would have been 59 or 60 years old at the time. Seymour sees that as another connection.
She said Peter’s image starkly resembles her family, and she has compared the three known photos of Whipped Peter to photos of uncles and cousins wearing military uniforms. The family also carries the names of Peter and Aaron throughout five generations along with the skill and occupation being farmers, blacksmiths, and ministers—as recorded in Census records.
Although the specific story of Whipped Peter was not one that passed through the family, Seymour believes her second cousin, Eddie Jackson, knew the connection when he encouraged her to research “Peter Jackson 1804.”
Since then Seymour has searched for Peter and the Jacksons of Port Hudson through online resources and physical documents in museums and libraries. She’s also met with Kathe Hambrick of the River Road African American Museum who introduced her to genealogist Antoinette Harrell.
Harrell recently interviewed Seymour in her Port Hudson home to begin finding the missing pieces to the Peter Jackson family history. As she shared her family records, they sat only a few miles away from where scenes of Emancipation were filmed.
There are missing links that Seymour plans to gather as she continues recording the life of her family. For now, the former optician said she looks forward to documenting and sharing the personalities, experiences, and triumphs of the Jackson family.
She said she wants “to show the different hardships and victories of each generation that our people have gone through. I want to know for the years to come, and I want to let others know that this is our relative,” she said. “I want people to see a family that has endured a lot and has a purpose.”
When it comes to the movie, Emancipation, Seymour said she hopes it shows “the world that just because you are entrapped by slavery or you’re in a position where you can’t see your way out, there is a way out. “
For her, it will be exciting to discover if her forefather endured these persecutions and is now known all over the world. Emancipation is a film based on Peter's escape, starring Will Smith and directed by Antoine Fuqua. It doesn't depict the fullness of Peter’s life.
“It’s a movie about freedom. It’s a movie about love. It’s a movie about family. It’s a movie about faith. It’s a movie about endurance and gratitude, and it’s a movie about the power of the spirit of the African American,” Will Smith told Complex.com.
Seymour said, “maybe it. (the movie) will also show that as a people, we have been through enough and it’s time to come together.”
It is an exciting and hopeful time in genealogy, said Harrell.
In 2008, she unearthed the story of Mae Louise Walls Miller, who was kept in modern-day slavery until 1963—although the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 should have freed her family. She was held as a slave in Gillsburg, Miss., and escaped to Kentwood, La. She was highlighted in Harrell’s short documentary The Untold Story: Slavery in the 20th Century. The case became the true story behind Alice, a crime thriller where actress KeKe Palmer portrays Miller.
Harrell has uncovered peonage stories and connected lineages of families throughout Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Florida.
“We’re seeing a breakthrough of history being revealed in America in a way that has never been seen before,” said Harrell. “We need those stories told fairly along with the family input.”