By Vikki Bynum
Davis Knight, the great-grandson of the infamous “Free State of Jones” guerrilla, Newt Knight, became the centerpiece of his own drama some 25 years after the death of his notorious ancestor. Although Davis was descended from Newt and his wife, Serena, both of whom were white, he was also the great-grandson of Rachel Knight, a former slave of Newt’s grandfather. And although Davis was white in appearance, because of his descent from Rachel, he was defined as black by his white neighbors. Some of those neighbors did not take kindly to Davis Knight’s marriage in 1946 to Junie Lee Spradley, a local white woman. In 1948, Davis ended up in court, accused of having married across the color line (a crime in several states until 1967). Despite a vigorous defense by Attorney Quitman Ross, a jury pronounced Davis guilty. Convicted of miscegenation, the Ellisville Court sentenced him to five years in Mississippi’s notorious Parchman prison.
Attorney Ross immediately appealed the decision on grounds the court had failed to prove that Davis had 1/8th or more African ancestry, and won his case. The Mississippi State Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s decision and remanded Davis’s case for retrial–a retrial that never took place. In legal terms, the High Court ruled in this important case, the “one drop rule” did not determine one’s racial identity, regardless of social custom. Davis Knight thus escaped going to prison and, for the rest of his life, lived as a white man.
It turned out, however, that the rest of Davis’s life would be quite short, as was the marriage that he suffered to defend in court. Some years ago, researcher Ken Welch of Soso, Mississippi, provided me copies of Davis’s divorce and death records. They show that in 1954, five years after his Supreme Court victory, Davis sued Junie Lee for divorce on grounds she had abandoned their home in 1951. The couple had no children, and Davis claimed that Junie Lee had given birth to another man’s child during their separation. The marriage was officially dissolved on July 20, 1954.
Soon after, Davis moved to Channelview, Texas (near Houston), where in 1959 he would lose his life in a fishing accident. Before that tragic day, Davis married for a second time, to Evelyn (Evie) Wilburn, and worked as a painter’s helper for Olin Mathieson Chemical Corporation. When I interviewed Ethel Knight (author of Echo of the Black Horn) in 1992, she told me that Davis had abandoned Junie Lee for a rich, white, older woman who lived in Texas. If Davis’s divorce testimony is to be believed, however, it was Junie Lee who left him. And while his new wife, Evie, was fourteen years older than him, and white, I have found no evidence that she was rich. Evie had been twice divorced, and had two sons, Joel G. Hill, age 31, and James W. McDonald, 24, who were closer in age than she to her new husband.
On the morning Davis Knight died, he had just embarked on a fishing trip at the Sheldon Reservoir with his stepson, Joel. According to Joel, he first waded and floated out to a small island where the two men intended to fish. Davis followed, carrying his fishing rod and wearing a life preserver. As he entered into deeper water, the preserver slipped upward and he was momentarily submerged, causing him to panic and thrash about. Several fisherman came to his aid, but by then Davis had been under the water for 3 to 5 minutes and could not be revived. An autopsy ruled his death an accidental drowning.
Davis’s Texas death certificate described him as a 34-year-old white man. Although the Mississippi Supreme Court had granted him the same status, the “one drop rule” of race meant that most people who knew his roots would never accept him as white. So, like many kinfolk before him, Davis escaped the dangers and degradation of being labeled a “black” man by leaving the state. For him, that escape proved all too brief.
Note: This post was revised on 10/20/2014. For a full history of Davis Knight’s miscegenation trial, see Victoria Bynum, “‘White Negroes’ in Segregated Mississippi: Miscegenation, Rachel Identity, and the Law,” The Journal of Southern History (Vol. LXIV, No. 2, May 1998), subsequently republished in Victoria Bynum, The Free State of Jones (2001).