by Victoria E. Bynum, author of The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2001).
In chapter seven of The State of Jones, Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer recount Newt Knight’s important role in the battle for power between the Republican Administration of Adelbert Ames and the reactionary forces of Confederate politicians and their Klan henchmen. They provide a moving account of Reconstruction in Mississippi, a violent and tragic episode in which basic human rights and the nation’s Constitution were trampled upon.
In so doing, the authors add to our current understanding of Newt Knight’s role in the post-war battle for Mississippi’s political future. Their discovery of part of a note from A. K. Davis, Governor Ames’s black lieutenant governor, counseling Newt to “appoint good men,” advances our sense of Newt’s political importance in a state beleaguered by white supremacist violence and political schemes that ultimately defeated Reconstruction and ended Newt’s political career in the process.
The authors’ inclusion of material from the depositions of Newt Knight’s federal claim files, 1887-1900, enriches our understanding that he was indeed a Union man and a determined foe of segregationist Democrats after the war—indeed, for the rest of his long life. But it is not the case that Stauffer and Jenkins “discovered” these depositions (p. 385). That distinction belongs to independent researcher Kenneth Welch, who first mentioned Newt’s federal claims in a 1985 Knight family genealogy (Knights and Related Families). The depositions from those claims are not discussed in my book, Free State of Jones, but not because I did not know about them. Based on Ken Welch’s references, I requested the files during a visit to the National Archives in Washington, DC, but was provided only the 1870 file folder by an archivist who, after an exhaustive search, could not locate claims 8013 and 8464. I reluctantly concluded that the documentary evidence for those claims was no longer extant. In early 2001, I learned otherwise from Ken Welch, who graciously copied the files for me from his own research collection. By then, my book was already in press, but I devote a chapter to analysis of the claims in my new book forthcoming from the University of North Carolina Press. No doubt the files would have enriched my discussion of Newt Knight’s post-war political activities in The Free State of Jones, as they do in Jenkins and Stauffer’s State of Jones, but there is nothing in them that would have changed my argument.
Chapter eight of State of Jones revisits the history of the multiracial community founded by Newt, Serena, Rachel, and George Ann Knight. Jenkins and Stauffer’s addition of interviews with heretofore unheard from Knight descendants amplifies the story of this community. In particular, Barbara Blackledge’s description of her feelings of alienation as a multiracial child growing up in Jim Crow Mississippi provides poignant testimony to the stark racial boundaries that dictated a person must be either “black” or “white.”
It is the intimate relationship of Newt Knight and former slave Rachel Knight (Newt’s wartime collaborator) that most captures the authors’ attention. Newt, they conclude, “came to belong more to Rachel than to his own wife, Serena.” Fair enough. In their zeal, however, to portray Rachel as the great love of Newt’s life, they come close to blaming Newt’s extra-marital affairs on Serena. With no evidence other than their observation about “the constant concerns and drudgery of farming,” they decide that Newt and Serena’s marriage “does not seem to have been a love affair,” and that “Newt’s life with Serena would be difficult” (p. 60). They also claim, with no evidence whatsoever, that Serena temporarily fled Mississippi during the war, leaving Newt to succumb to the charms of Rachel.
By once again taking liberties with their evidence, Stauffer and Jenkins encourage readers to believe that Newt’s philandering ways—and there is good evidence that he fathered upwards of four children by Rachel’s daughter George Ann as well as children by Serena and Rachel—were the result of an unhappy marriage to Serena, a “prematurely weary” and dispirited woman, broken by hard work and the Civil War (and perhaps by life with Newt?). In rendering Serena so pitiable a figure, the authors deliver the unkindest cut of all: they describe her as a “grim-faced” woman with a “thin face, downturned mouth,” and “jug ears” (p. 61).
The authors’ depiction of a homely, sour-faced Serena is based on a photograph taken of her and Newt together late in life. But since the photo does not appear in State of Jones (it does appear in Free State of Jones, p. 154), readers cannot know that it was snapped when the couple was well past their prime. In the case of Rachel, however, the authors present photographs of two much younger and lovelier women. In contrast to Serena, Rachel is described as having “lustrous” hair, “blaze eyes,” and a bewitching manner. It’s worth noting that there is no reliably documented photo of Rachel Knight. To this day discussion of which of the photos reproduced in State of Jones is truly of Rachel evokes intense debate among her descendants.More important, it’s hard to believe that seasoned scholars would reduce a discussion of Newt’s sexual affairs to a debate over whether his wife or his lover was more attractive.
Far more interesting would be an exploration of the relationship between Serena and Rachel, whose children intermarried with one another. Because of the intermarriages between their children (Mat and Fannie, Mollie and Jeffrey), the two women were grandparents to many of the same children. Until Mollie’s death around 1917, Serena lived in her daughter and Jeffrey’s multiracial household. Like Newt, her living arrangements did not conform to Jim Crow standards.
This concludes my review of State of Jones. To summarize, in my opinion Jenkins and Stauffer have produced a lively and engaging but deeply flawed work of history. Too often they rely uncritically on suspect sources (for example, Ethel Knight and Tom Knight), stretch their evidence, and create scenes and conversations without any direct evidence at all. One wishes that the authors’ enthusiasm and passion for their subject had been accompanied by greater respect for the historical record. With a story so riveting, I suspect that we have not yet heard the last word on “Mississippi’s Longest Civil War.”