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Randy Willis is the author of Twice a Slave, Three Winds Blowing, Louisiana Wind, Beckoning Candle, Carolinas Wind, The Apostle to the Opelousas, The Story of Joseph Willis, and many magazine and newspaper articles.
Twice a Slave has been chosen as a Jerry B. Jenkins Select Book, along with four bestselling authors. Jerry Jenkins is author of more than 180 books with sales of more than 70 million copies, including the best-selling Left Behind series.
Twice a Slave has also been adapted into a dramatic play at Louisiana College, by Dr. D. Pete Richardson (Associate Professor of Theater with Louisiana College).
Randy Willis owns Randy Willis Music Publishing (an ASCAP-affiliated music publishing company), and Town Lake Music Publishing, LLC (a BMI-affiliated music publishing company). He is an ASCAP-affiliated songwriter.
He is the founder of Operation Warm Heart (vimeo.com/41195752) and (https://youtu.be/o-zCvzH2kdU) which feeds and clothes the homeless, and is a member of the Board of Directors of Our Mission Possible (ourmp.org) in Austin, with the goal of empowering at-risk teens to discover their greatness . He is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Joseph Willis Institute at Louisiana College.
He was born in Oakdale, Louisiana. He lived on Barber Creek, between Forest Hill and Longleaf, Louisiana, as a boy. He currently resides in the Texas Hill Country.
He graduated from Angleton High School in Angleton, Texas, and Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas, with a BBA. He was a graduate student at Texas State University for six years.
He is single and the father of three sons and has four grandchildren. All of his books are dedicated to them by name.
Randy Willis is a fourth great-grandson of Joseph Willis, and his foremost historian.
The Birth of the Biographies, Novels and the Play...
And, the real-life connections between William Prince Ford, Solomon Northup, James "Jim " Bowie, and Joseph Willis
As a child Randy Willis lived on Barber Creek between Longleaf and Forest Hill, Louisiana. As a teenager, he worked cows with his family, near Forest Hill, on the open range, owned by lumber companies. Seven generations of his family have lived there, beginning in 1828 with his 4th Great-Grandfather Joseph Willis. Randy would often ride his horse through his family's neighboring property, which was once William Prince Ford's Wallfield Plantation, not realizing the significance of his ancestor's connection to Solomon Northup and William Prince Ford.
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After writing the biography The Apostle to the Opelousas, Randy Willis got the idea for the novel and the play Twice a Slave from his friend and fellow historian Dr. Sue Eakin. She contacted him after reading an article that mentioned he had obtained the Spring Hill Baptist Church's minutes. The minutes had much information on two of its founders: Joseph Willis and William Prince Ford.
Ford had bought the slave Solomon Northup on June 23, 1841, in New Orleans. He immediately brought him to his Wallfield Plantation. Just 46 days later, on August 8, 1841, Joseph Willis and William Prince Ford founded Spring Hill Baptist Church. Ford's slaves attended the church with him, which was the custom in pre-Civil War Louisiana.
The plantation was located on Hurricane Creek, a fourth-mile east of present-day Forest Hill, Louisiana. It was located on the crest of a hill, on the Texas Road that ran along side a ridge. Northup called this area, in his book Twelve Years a Slave, "The Great Piney Woods." Northup worked on the plantation and at Ford's lumber mill, on eighty acres of land, along Indian Creek near the present-day Tall Timbers Baptist Conference Center.
Ford was also the headmaster of Spring Creek Academy located near his plantation and Spring Hill Baptist Church. It was there, in 1841, that Joseph Willis would live and entrust his diary to his protégé William Prince Ford, according to historian W.E. Paxton (A History of the Baptist of Louisiana, from the Earliest Times to the Present, 1888).
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Ford was not a Baptist preacher when he purchased Solomon Northup and the slave Eliza, a.k.a. Dradey, in 1841, as many books, articles, blogs, and the movie 12 Years a Slave have portrayed.
The first part of the Spring Hill Baptist Church minutes are written in Ford's own handwriting since he was the church 's first secretary and also the first church clerk. The minutes reveal that on July 7, 1842, Ford was elected deacon. On December 11, 1842, Ford became the church 's treasurer, too. It was during the winter of 1842 that Ford sold a 60% share of Northup to John M. Tibeats. Ford's remaining 40% was later conveyed to Edwin Epps, on April 9, 1843.
It was not until February 10, 1844, that Ford was ordained as a Baptist preacher. A year later, on April 12, 1845, Ford was excommunicated for "communing with the Campbellite Church at Cheneyville." But, Ford's later writings reveal that he remained close friends with his neighbor and mentor Joseph Willis.
A decade before (in 1834, after a Louisiana Baptist Association meeting) William Prince Ford said of Joseph Willis, "It was truly affecting to hear him speak of them [his churches] 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." (W.E. Paxton, A History of the Baptist of Louisiana, from the Earliest Times to the Present, 1888).
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Dr. Eakin asked Randy Willis if he would help her with her research on William Prince Ford. He also lectured in her history classes, at Louisiana State University at Alexandria, on the subject.
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's life would be more interesting to the general public than a biography and would reach a greater audience."
Dr. Eakin is best known for documenting, annotating, and reviving interest in Solomon Northup's 1853 book Twelve Years a Slave. She, at the age of eighteen, rediscovered a long-forgotten copy of Solomon Northup's book, on the shelves of a bookstore, near the LSU campus, in Baton Rouge. The bookstore owner sold it to her for only 25 cents. In 2013, 12 Years a Slave won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
In his acceptance speech for the honor, director Steve 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."
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James Bowie was a neighbor of Joseph Willis when they both lived near Bayou Chicot, Louisiana. Jim's brother, Rezin Bowie, was a neighbor to Joseph's eldest son Agerton Willis and eldest grandson, Daniel Hubbard Willis Sr. for four years (1824-1827) in the village of Bayou Boeuf. The name changed to Holmesville, in 1834, and is located near present-day Eola. It was at Holmesville, on Bayou Boeuf, that Edwin Epps enslaved (1845-1853) Solomon Northup for the last eight years of his twelve year indenture.
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It was in the village of Bayou Boeuf that Joseph's eldest son and Randy Willis's 3rd great-grandfather Agerton Willis met and married Sophie Story (an Irish orphan). Their eldest son Daniel Hubbard Willis Sr. would be the first of many in the family to follow Joseph Willis into the ministry. He even planted more churches in Louisiana than Joseph. His son, Daniel Hubbard Willis Jr., is the main character in the Randy Willis's novel Louisiana Wind.
The son of a white man and Cherokee slave, Joseph Willis, gains his freedom and swims the mighty Mississippi on a mule. There, he preaches the first Gospel sermon by an Evangelical west of the Mississippi River.
Joseph Willis preached the first Gospel sermon by an Evangelical west of the Mississippi River, in 1798.
Joseph Willis's 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, riding 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 (1798) the first Gospel sermon by an Evangelical west of the Mississippi River.
✯ On November 13, 1812, Joseph Willis constituted Calvary Baptist Church at Bayou Chicot, Louisiana. He went on to plant over twenty churches in Louisiana.
✯ October 31, 1818, Joseph Willis (and others that had followed him from the Carolinas) founded the Louisiana Baptist Association, at Beulah Baptist in Cheneyville. Joseph had founded all five charter member churches.
✯ After overcoming insurmountable obstacles, he blazed a trail for others for another half-century that changed American history.
✯ His accomplishments are still felt today.