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Archive for August, 2009

[Many readers have written to tell me how much they enjoy listening to "Jones County Jubilee," over on my Renegade South website. The song is performed by Doctor G and the Mudcats, and was written by Doctor G himself, aka Gregg Andrews. Gregg, who wrote the following post, is a historian as well as singer/songwriter, and has published numerous books and articles, including his own community study, City of Dust: A Cement Company Town in the Land of Tom Sawyer (Univ. of Missouri Press, 1996). I'm proud to note that Gregg is also my husband.]

 

As a singer/songwriter, historian, and teacher, I like to use music as a teaching tool to reach students. I grew up in a cement company town just outside Hannibal, Missouri–Mark Twain’s boyhood home–on the banks of the Mississippi River. My father, who drilled holes and set dynamite charges in the cement plant’s limestone quarries, died at the age of 48, but he taught me to play the guitar shortly before he died. I was 15 years old at the time. The first song I learned from him was Jimmy Rodgers’s Depression-era “Waiting for a Train.” That song about hard times symbolized the cultural legacy he passed on to me–a love of traditional country music and the blues, along with a deep interest in the struggles and culture of working people. A few years later, I discovered the exciting music of Tony Joe White and Credence Clearwater Revival, which added a swamp vibe to the mix of influences on my music.

My song, “Jones County Jubilee,” had its roots in the first trip I made with Vikki to Jones County, Mississippi, on a hot August day in 1992. I was driving our car, trying unsuccessfully  to find a local landmark in the area. When I spotted a guy in his truck out in the field, I pulled over and suggested that Vikki get out of the car and walk over to ask him for directions. He told her to have me pull the car up in the shade and motioned he’d join us there in a few minutes.

The next thing we knew, we were in the truck with Julius Huff, who took us to the Jackie Knight cemetery, where several members of Newton Knight’s band of Unionists were buried after being hanged by Confederate forces. I got my first good feel of Jones County history, folklore, and culture as he got a key to unlock the gate guarding the bumpy old road down into the swamp. I still remember the chills running up and down my spine when I saw the tombstone inscription, “Executed for the courage of their convictions.” Looking back, I think that was the starting point for my song, even though I didn’t write it til years later.

Mass gravestone of Knight kinfolk executed by Col. Robert Lowry, Jackie Knight cemetery

Mass gravestone of Knight kinfolk executed by Col. Robert Lowry, Jackie Knight cemetery

We spent delightful hours with Julius, who stressed how beautiful Rachel was, how she “HOO-DOOED” Newt. Julius took us to a number of other places and gave his views on the history of Newt’s campaign against local Confederate officials during the war. We picked our way through the thick brush and kept an eye out for snakes as he showed us where Ben Knight and Sil Coleman were hanged after Confederate hound dogs had tracked them down. After Ben’s executioners refused his last request for water, according to folklore, water began to bubble up near his grave.

One other experience on that first trip to Jones County, in particular, helped to establish the feel of “Jones County Jubilee.” It was Earle Knight who rode with Vikki and me as we tried to locate the cemetery where Newt and Rachel are buried. Earle, who was 89 years old at the time, strained his eyes as I drove our new Ford Taurus down what had once been a pretty primitive dirt road. As I maneuvered the car to straddle washed-out gullies and drove through weeds that came up over the hood of the car, I started having second thoughts about just what in the hell we were doing. I mean, here we were, down in the swamp, dependent on the memory of an 89-year-old man who hadn’t even been to the cemetery in years. The rumble of thunder off in the distance added tension and a bit of urgency to our search for the graves. Then, at one point, Earle asked me to stop. Telling us to stay in the car, he got out and in a few minutes suddenly vanished in the brush. Oh, great, I told Vikki! What if he’d have a heart attack or something out there searching in the sweltering heat? Besides, the old road had taken so many twists and turns and the weeds were so high that we’d never find him or our way out of there. About that time, Earle reappeared and summoned us. He’d found the graves. “Praise the Lord,” I think I muttered at the time.

Separate photos of Newt and Rachel's graves, Newt Knight Cemetery

Separate photos of Newt and Rachel's graves, Newt Knight Cemetery

Over the next ten summers, I served as Vikki’s research assistant as we became familiar faces to many in the Jones County area, especially to members of the Knight family. In particular, Florence Blaylock opened her house to us, prepared fantastic meals, introduced us to members of the Knight family, and took us with her to services of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. In Jackson, the owners of a local restaurant (Martins, if I remember right) near the old Mississippi Department of History and Archives greeted us by name each summer, giving us free pieces of pie after we had filled up on their delicious cafeteria-style food.

 I didn’t set out to write a song about the Civil War history of Jones County. I had never even thought about it, in fact, but one day years later when I sat down with my guitar to write something with a good swamp feel, out came the words “way down in Mississippi.” And then it just flowed. I wanted to title the song, “Free State of Jones,” but when I did a google search, I discovered a great song by Cary Hudson, of Sumrall, Mississippi, that already had that name. That’s when I became first acquainted with the music of Cary and his band, Blue Mountain. What a treat when, a few years later, Vikki and I got to hear Cary perform the song at Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos, Texas, while he was on a Texas tour. About 7 months later, Cary and I did a show together at Cheatham Street, and he quickly became one of my own favorite songwriters.

Cary Hudson on harmonica with Doctor G and the Mudcats, Cheatham Street Warehouse, San Marcos, TX

Cary Hudson on harmonica with Doctor G and the Mudcats, Cheatham Street Warehouse, San Marcos, TX

“Jones County Jubilee” soon became popular among fans (including many pro-Confederates) as I began to perform it with my band, Doctor G and the Mudcats, here in south central Texas. We included it on my CD, Mudcat (Cheatham Street Records), which was produced by Kent Finlay and released in September, 2005.

Gregg Andrews (Doctor G)

San Marcos, Texas

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The following photograph, I’m sure you’ll agree, is intriguing. Posing together are two women, one of whom appears to be multiracial, the other white. Are they sisters? sisters-in-law? cousins? No one knows for certain, because no one knows exactly who these women are. All that is certain is that they were somehow connected to the Knight family of Jones County, Mississippi.

 

Who are these women?

Who are these women?

This photograph embodies the problems faced by authors of biographical studies—that of identifying accurately the subjects of their photos. Simply because a donor identifies a person as so-and-so doesn’t make it so. When that book is published, the author will quickly learn if others disagree with the donor’s opinion! No where is this more evident than in two rival photos published elsewhere on this blog (see here and here), both of which are claimed to be of Rachel Knight. In truth, no one can say definitively that either of the two competing photos is of Rachel. Yvonne Bivins believes that the second photo is Rachel because it fits her grandfather’s description of what she looked like, while Annette Knight has identified the same woman as Martha Ann Knight, her grandmother and a daughter of Rachel’s.

 In regard to the first picture, which appeared on the cover of my book, The Free State of Jones, I have long since relinquished my claim that it is Rachel. Yet, while some believe that the photo is of either Anna or Lessie Knight (Rachel’s granddaughters), others, including Dianne Walkup, still believe that it may indeed be Rachel.

To understand why, let’s return to the photo at the top of the page. Dianne believes that the woman on the left is the same woman who appeared on the cover of my book, and that both are Rachel. She and her sister Aggie believe that the woman on the right is Newt Knight’s white wife, Serena. They reason that she looks like a young version of the aged Serena who appears with her husband Newt in a photo taken late in the nineteenth century (see p. 154 of Free State of Jones). Since they also believe that Rachel and Serena came to terms with sharing Newt’s affections, they are not surprised that the women would pose together. It was George Ann’s relationship with Newt after Rachel’s death in 1889, Dianne asserts, that caused Serena to leave Newt’s household (ex-slave Martha Wheeler asserted the same. See p. 159 of Free State of Jones). The fact that Serena moved into the household of her son-in-law, Jeffrey (son of Rachel) and her daughter, Mollie (Jeffrey’s wife), is viewed by Dianne as further proof that Serena was alienated by George Ann’s relationship with Newt, but not from her multiracial family.

Yvonne Bivins believes just as firmly that the above photo is not of Rachel and Serena. Rather, Yvonne believes the woman on the left might be Anna Knight (consistent with other photos of Anna), and that the woman on the right might be Candace Smith Knight, who she identifies as the wife of Anna’s brother, John Howard Knight. Candace Smith was from the multiracial Smith/Ainsworth family. Many members of this family were white-skinned despite their “one drop” of African ancestry. If Yvonne is correct, then, this is a photo of multiracial sisters-in-law.

Clearly, unless a person’s name appears on an old photograph (and even then there’s a chance it’s wrong), or unless there is broad consensus among descendants about who that person is, one has only theories, not facts, to guide in the identification of photographs taken in the late 19th and early 20th century. Sometimes theories will produce consensus, but often they don’t. Given all the uncertainty, is anyone surprised to learn that NO photograph purported to be of Rachel Knight will appear in my forthcoming book, The Long Shadow of the Civil War?!

As always, I welcome your thoughts.

Vikki Bynum

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I’m pleased to announce that Ed Payne’s long-awaited article on Sarah Collins (aka Sarah Collins Walters Parker) is now in print! Look for “Kinship, Gender, and Slavery in the Free State of Jones: the Life of Sarah Collins,” in the spring issue of the Journal of Mississippi History.

Sarah Collins was Ed’s GGGGrandmother, and Ed is one of the leading experts on the history of the Collins family of Jones County, Mississippi. Here, he tells the unique story of a woman who was the sister of several members of Newt Knight’s Knight Company. Prepare for some interesting surprises that remind us that history must be told in all its complexities, and with judicious use of evidence.

Congratulations, Ed!

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 I received the following email message on Sunday from Ingrid Leverett, the daughter of historian Rudy Leverett, author of The Legend of the Free State of Jones (University of Mississippi Press, 1984). Rudy’s book demolished once and for all the myth that Jones County seceded from the Confederacy. While he and I differed in our opinion of whether or not Newt Knight was an outlaw or a Unionist, we engaged in a mutually-respectful dialogue in which we shared materials and ideas.

Vikki Bynum, Moderator

Dr. Bynum,

Thank you very much for your defense of serious and careful scholarship in connection with the history of Jones County, Mississippi.  As a daughter of Rudy Leverett, I was dismayed to read of the distorted and ahistorical treatment of the subject by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer and of the publicity their work seems to be receiving.  My father would have endorsed your superb rebuttal of their unsubstantiated claims for Newt Knight which, as you explained, make for colorful drama but poor history.  Indeed, the purpose of my father’s book, Legend of the Free State of Jones — ten years or more in the researching and writing — was precisely to lay to rest, once and for all, perpetuation of the myths about Jones County and Newt Knight advanced by Jenkins and Stauffer.
Best regards,
Ingrid Leverett

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[Jonathan Odell has written extensively about his native state of Mississippi and is the author of the novel, The View From Delphi.  This post was adapted from comments Jon made on Kevin Levin's Civil War Memory blog.]

 

After interviewing many of the “Black Knight” descendants, one thing I’ve learned that concerns them is how easily whites are convinced to idealize the “romantic” relationship between Newt Knight and the ex-slave Rachel. I don’t think they would agree with a commenter who, as quoted on Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory blog, wrote that “it’s less problematic” that Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, authors of State of Jones,  “sexed up a romantic relationship for the sake of a film” then if they generally misread the meaning of Newt Knight and the Free State of Jones.

Black women in the days following the Civil War were at the bottom of the heap power-wise. Whether Knight’s assumed romantic feelings for Rachel were reciprocated is missing the point. We will never know, because in the context of that era, it was irrelevant. Good for her if she did, but for black mothers in those days, romantic love was not the driving motivation. Who they loved was immaterial to surviving. She had to find the least worst choice that would keep her and her children alive. Sexing up the relationship for a more satisfying (and modern) ending, further obscures the wrenching sacrifices made and amazing courage displayed by black women of that era.

Just another thought. I was raised in Jones County and have been fascinated to find that the Knights were not the only family line that diverged down two paths after the Civil War. Several former slave owners sired black offspring, and in this part of the country, many thought that even your black children were to be cared for. Many acres of land are still owned by descendants of slaves who were bequeathed the parcel by a white father. But in none of these incidents do the direct black descendants assume that anything like romantic love played a part. According to them black women after the War were as much sexual slaves to white men as they were before the war. And interestingly enough, neither do they call it rape. “Taking somebody to the barn,” as they commonly refer to the occurrence, was just the nature of things. I guess that’s why context is everything. Projecting 21st century notions of romantic love onto 19th century southern interracial relations, as Jenkins and Stauffer have done, won’t take us far toward understanding the lives of black, multiracial, or for that matter white women.

Jonathan Odell

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