By Vikki Bynum
In 1998, I published an article on Davis Knight’s miscegenation trial in The Journal of Southern History (Vol. LXIV, No. 2, May 1998). Subsequently, I included his story in my book The Free State of Jones (2001). Davis, the great-grandson of Newt and Serena Knight, was also the great-grandson of Rachel Knight, a former slave of Newt’s grandfather. Because of his slave ancestor, Davis was convicted in 1948 for having crossed the color line when he married Junie Lee Spradley, a white woman.
The case is significant because the Mississippi State Supreme Court remanded Davis’s case in 1949 on grounds that the lower court did not prove that Davis had 1/8th or more African ancestry. Legally, regardless of custom, the “one drop rule” did not determine one’s racial identity. Davis thus avoided going to prison for having married across the color line (a crime in several states until 1967). For the rest of his life, he 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, Ken Welch of Soso, MS, 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.