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Archive for January, 2009

Newt Knight’s political career was short-circuited by his open embrace of his mixed-race descendants. The essay, “Negotiating Boundaries of Race and Gender in Jim Crow Mississippi,” which will appear as chapter six in The Long Shadow of the Civil War, explores the legacy of that decision.

This essay extends the Knight saga well into the twentieth century by focusing on several Knight women, but especially the sisters, Anna, Gracie, and Lessie, who personified the struggles and triumphs of being female as well as multiracial in the segregated South. The centerpiece of the essay is Anna Knight, who carved out a remarkable international career as a teacher and a Seventh-Day Adventist missionary who spent many years in India.

 Anna’s steely determination shaped the course of many of her kinfolks’ lives as well as her own. In 1898, she established an Adventist-sponsored school and two Sunday schools in the Knight community. Under her tutelage, many of her relatives gained educations and converted to Seventh-Day Adventism.

While education and religious faith were important tools for combating racial prejudice and segregation, other Knights, including Anna’s sister, Lessie, opted instead to identify with their European or Native-American heritage, and to ignore or deny African ancestry. Under segregationist terms, they were “passing,” but under their own terms, they were choosing the ancestry that fit their self-image and afforded them the same opportunities for self-fulfillment that “white” Americans enjoyed.

 

 

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A new Facebook friend of mine, Ross Bynum (we haven’t yet figured out exactly how we’re related) raised an interesting question. He has long wondered how Gitano, where he is from, got its name. As he points out, “gitano” is a word for Spanish male gypsies; also the Romani people of Spain are often called Gitanos. So, does the town’s name pre-date settlers from the eastern U.S. and harken back to earlier Spanish settlements, or is there another explanation for how it got its name?

vikki

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This is my first post since “Guerrilla Wars” that highlights the East Texas component of Long Shadow of the Civil War. The essay “Civil War Unionists as New South Radicals: Mississippi and Texas, 1865-1920″ links Warren J. Collins of Hardin County, Texas, to his brother, Jasper J. Collins, of Jones County, Mississippi. Newt Knight also makes regular appearances in this essay, since Jasper Collins was his 1st sgt. in the Knight band (See Knight Company roster, 1870).

This essay picks up after the Civil War, tracing the migration of Collins and related families to East Texas, but most especially tracing the political evolution of the brothers, Warren J. and Jasper J. Collins, into the 20th century.

Although Warren and Jasper lived in separate states, both became populists during the late 19th century, continuing their wartime rejection of conventional politics. In fact, Jasper and his son, Loren, founded Ellisville’s only known populist newspaper! Around the same time that Jasper joined the People’s Party, he also left the Baptist church to help found a Universalist Church in Jones County.

By 1910, Warren J. Collins was a socialist, although his son, Vinson, was a Democratic state senator in Texas.  I’ve found no evidence that Jasper joined the Socialist Party, but a small number of his Jones County kinfolk did.

I think you’ll be struck, as I was, by the fiercely independent political views of certain Collinses and Collins kin, during and long after the Civil War–and across state lines.

NOTE: For those interested in learning more about populists and socialists in Mississippi, I highly recommend the work of historian Stephen Cresswell. For Texas, see Gregg Cantrell, Lawrence Goodwyn, and James R. Green.

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Some of you may have noticed the new media slideshow that’s been added to the Renegade South website, www.renegadesouth.com One of the images you’ll see on it is the handwritten roster of the Knight band that Newt Knight submitted to Congress in 1870. That was the year that Newt began petitioning Congress to compensate him and his men for having fought on behalf of the Union Army.  He included the names of 54 men that he described as having remained “true” to the band and to the Union.

Understand that this is not the original roster that Newt kept hidden in the woods during the war. Family members retain that original, which is quite brittle and fragile. Rather, this roster was created after the war and presented as evidence to support Newt’s petition. Some of you will no doubt enjoy looking for familiar names! In case you can’t read them–the document “slides” by pretty fast–I’m listing all the names here, with original spellings and in original order.

I hope you enjoy the search, and if you’d like more information about what is written on the roster about a particular man, just ask! Officers are followed by privates:

Captain Newton Knight

1st Lt. J. M. Valentine

2nd Lt. Simeon Collins

1st. Sgt.  J.J. Collins

2nd Sgt. W. P. Turnbow

1st Corp. Alphus Knight

2nd Corp. S.G. Owens

Tapley Bynum

P.M. Bynum

Montgomery Blackwell

J.M. Blackwell

J.M. Collins

B.F. Collins

M.C. Collins

M.M. Coats

S.C. Coleman

B.F. Cawley

R.J. Collins

James Ewlen

J.M. Gunter

Tucker Gregg

R.H. Hinton

John Hogan

J.M. Hathhorn

G.M. Hathhorn

W.B. Jones

M.W. Kurven

S.W. Kurven

J.M. Knight

G.F. Knight

H.C. Knight

B.F. Knight

Lazrous Mathews

Ausberry McDaniel

C.F. Prine

Daniel Redock

W.W. Sumrall

John Ira Vallentine

Paterick Vallentine

M.B. [probably W., not M., for William] Vallentine

R.H. Vallentine

Eliga Wilborn

T.L. Welch

R.J. Welch

W.M. Welch

H.R. Welch

Younger Welborn

W.T. Welborn

N.V. Whitehead

T.J. Whitehead

D.W. Whitehead

James Yates

Thomas Yates

Joseph Youghn

Moses Richerson

Be sure to have a look at the original; it truly makes the past come alive!

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cover page of Newt Knight's final petition to Congress, 1894

cover page of Newt Knight's final petition to Congress, 1894

Newt Knight was relentless in his efforts to gain compensation for himself and his men from the U.S. Government for having served the Union. I barely touched on his history of claims in The Free State of Jones because the National Archives, where the files are stored, could not locate most of the records when I visited there back around 1994. Thankfully, Ken Welch of Soso, Mississippi, provided me copies of the missed files back in 2000, but not in time for me to integrate them into the book.

So, in a new essay, “Fighting a Losing Battle: Newt Knight versus the U.S. Court of Claims, 1870-1900, ” which will appear in my upcoming book, The Long Shadow of the Civil War, I tell the history of those efforts. The case files are fascinating–many former members of the band, including Newt, AND opponents of the band, gave lengthy depositions! These files convince  me more than ever that the Knight Band never attempted to secede from the Confederacy, but rather rejected the Confederacy’s right to exist, at least in Jones County, which had voted against Mississippi’s secession from the Union.

But there’s much more to be learned from the files than that, and I truly enjoyed writing this essay as kind of an epilogue to The Free State of Jones. Most striking is how doggedly Newt pursued his case, right up to the dawn of the twentieth century. In the end, he and his men were denied compensation (as were the vast majority of Southern Unionists).

When I imagine Newt’s frustration with the government he claimed to have fought for during the Civil War, I think I understand why he commented around 1892 that nonslaveholding farmers in the South should have just risen up against the slaveholders rather than fight their war for them.

 

Vikki Bynum

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I think of historians as investigative journalists of the past. I especially feel that way when I write an essay or book based on court records. My first book, Unruly Women, was such a work, and so is the essay “Disordered Communities: Freed People, Poor Whites, and ‘Mixed Blood’ Families in Post-Civil War North Carolina,” a chapter in my upcoming collection of essays, The Long Shadow of the Civil War.

Studying court records from a different century is the ultimate revival of “cold cases.”  “Disordered Communities” investigates the years following the Civil War known as Reconstruction and recovers the experiences of ordinary black and white citizens, men, women, and children, who struggled to survive this dark period of history.

The era of Reconstruction, 1865-1875, was both exhilarating and horrific for Southern Unionists, particularly those of African American descent. This essay traces the rise of the first Ku Klux Klan in 1868 by studying some of the South’s best preserved court records, those of Orange County, North Carolina. In Orange and surrounding counties,  the Klan effectively restored the power of slaveholders and wreaked havoc on the lives of former slaves and Unionists.

Women, some of whom resisted the Klan alongside their husbands, appear prominently in this chapter. Many simply struggled to make a life for themselves in a war-ravaged, violent society. There is Pattie Ruffin, newly freed from slavery, who was coerced by a prominent white politician into withholding the name of the white father of her unborn child from court officials. There is Ann Bowers Boothe, a widow who lost her farm to a white family after they claimed she had African American “blood,” and therefore could not inherit property from her white husband.  Many, many more cold cases are brought to life in this chapter, and they speak to communities throughout the South that witnessed similar post-Civil War struggles over power. And, always, the stories are about real people fighting, sometimes literally, for their lives.

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Is this really Rachel Knight?

Is this really Rachel Knight?

Is this really Joseph Sullivan Knight and wife?
Is this really Rachel and Newt Knight?

With help from descendants of Rachel Knight such as Dianne Walkup and Florence Blaylock, I have revisited the two photographs (see above) that I identified as being Rachel in my book, The Free State of Jones. Through Florence, I first learned that several descendants no longer believed, or had never believed, that the photograph on the book’s cover was Rachel. Well, no author likes hearing that! But, as a historian committed to publishing the truth, I knew I had to consider these opinions.

At first, I reasoned that the other photo published in my book which identifies Rachel and Newt Knight sitting side-by-side (see above) shows a woman who strongly resembles the woman in the cover photo. So, doesn’t that suggest that these are photos of Rachel, I asked? Well, after that things got even more interesting.  Several descendants, among them Dianne Walkup, reported that the couple in that photo is not Newt and Rachel at all; in fact some family members are certain that it is Newt’s son, Joseph Sullivan (Sill) Knight, sitting with one of his two wives, either Sarah Welborn or Mollie Hodges.

You know, I have never really thought that the man in that photo looked much like Newt Knight. But several Knight family members do believe that it is him, and another Knight researcher says that it doesn’t look like Newt only because he had shaved his beard off while serving in postwar politics.  So what is the truth? Perhaps readers can help.

At this point, I confess that I am pretty well persuaded that we, or at least I, simply don’t have a picture of Rachel Knight. But I would still like to know who the people in those photos are. Dianne Walkup believes that the cover portrait is actually of Lessie Knight, Georgeanne’s daughter and Rachel’s granddaughter. That is certainly plausible. There is a photo of a very young Lessie in The Free State of Jones in which her face appears almost identical to that of the woman in the cover photo. What do others think?

And about the photo of the couple: are there any descendants of Joseph Sullivan Knight out there who might be able to identify that photo one way or the other?

Vikki Bynum

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