Is Emancipation based on a true story? +2023

EMANCIPATION, from front: Will Smith, Michael Luwoye, Gilbert Owuor, 2022. Ph: Quantrall Colbert / Apple TV+ / Courtesy Everett Collection

The highly anticipated historical drama Emancipation hits theaters this winter and is sure to be a strong story. Starring Will Smith in his first role after winning an Oscar and becoming involved in controversy at the 2022 ceremony, the film is inspired by the true story of an enslaved man who escaped from a plantation during the Civil War to later become a to become a living rallying point for the abolitionist cause.

Content Warning: The historical sources that reported the story of “Peter”, including some linked below, use the language of the time (including terminology now considered obsolete and offensive) and show images of severe scars.

Who was “Peter” in real life?

According to the history books of the time, an enslaved man named Gordon (later referred to as “Whipped Peter” and given the name Peter in “Emancipation”) escaped from the Lyons family plantation in Louisiana in March 1863. After fleeing north, his story was reported by “Harper’s Weekly”, a well-known and high-circulation magazine published in New York City. According to the journal, Gordon avoided being tracked down by the Lyons’ bloodhounds by crossing several streams or creeks and rubbing himself with onions to mask his scent.

Eventually he reached a Union army camp in Baton Rouge. There he met several doctors and a photographer who took a picture of the horrific scars on his back after a guard brutally whipped him. He then reportedly joined the Union Army after the Emancipation Proclamation allowed freed enslaved people to join the army. Accounts of his military service are scattered, although one story reported that he was captured by Confederate soldiers who left him for dead; He then reportedly fled again to a Union camp. Another story lists Gordon as a sergeant in a black regiment that fought in the Siege of Port Hudson, the first time black soldiers played a key role in an assault on a major Confederate location. His life after the war is largely unknown.

In general, this was the accepted story of Gordon’s life and escape. 2014 however a peer-reviewed article appearing in the scholarly journal American Nineteenth-Century History suggested an alternative possibility: that the Harper’s Weekly article was fabricated, at least in part, for sensationalism, and that the man whose back is in the famous picture is not the same man depicted in the other pictures in the Harper’s item is pictured.

How did Gordon’s story influence history?

The publication and widespread distribution of the image of Gordon’s back had a tremendous impact at the height of the Civil War. It was immediately propagated by abolitionists to underscore the horrors of slavery and to combat Southern propaganda that claimed that enslaved people were treated well. Corresponding America’s Black Holocaust Museum, one writer at the time even suggested that the image of Gordon was more powerful than Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin because it presented visual evidence rather than just words. It’s difficult today to pinpoint cause and effect of this era, but rumors abound about the photo’s impact, including that it inspired foreign trading partners to stop buying cotton from the South and that there were free black men in the North convinced to join the Union Army.

“It was the first viral image of the brutality of slavery that the world saw,” said director Antoine Fuqua meeting after “Emancipation” was announced. “Which is interesting when you put it back into perspective with today and social media and what the world sees in an accurate, real way. We all need to search for a better future for all of us, for everyone. That’s one of the main reasons we’re doing things now, is to show our history. We must face our truth before we can move forward. “

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