Mississippi

Part 1: Yvonne Bivins on the History of Rachel Knight

Note from Vikki Bynum, Moderator: Rachel Knight was a central figure in the Free State of Jones. As collaborator to Newt Knight and the Knight Company, Mississippi’s most notorious band of Civil War deserters, she may have played a pivotal role in the band’s ability to elude Confederate arrest. She is most famous, however, as the mother of several of Newt Knight’s many children. The children born to Rachel, but also to other mixed-race families such as the Smiths and the Ainsworths (with whom the Knights intermarried), comprised complex branches of multiracial descendants who today variously identify themselves as white, brown, black, Indian, or a mixture of all four. One of those descendants, Sondra Yvonne Bivins, has researched and written extensively on the communities they built. In the following series of posts, Yvonne shares much of her research with Renegade South.

Rachel Knight and Her Descendants

by Sondra Yvonne Bivins

Preface: How I came to write the history of Rachel

It was never my intention to research Rachel Knight; however, after spending countless hours researching the Smiths, who were connected to the Rachel’s descendants through marriage, I found that everything I had heard from family about Rachel was in contradiction to what was perceived about her by most people who had either read books and articles about her, or had heard tainted stories from the community or from “stretched” family lore.  My generation just did not know anything about Rachel and her children, or about their relationships with Newton Knight.

According to my grandfather, Warren Smith, Ethel Knight’s book, Echo of the Black Horn (1951) was a “pack of lies.”  Ethel was smart enough to create a fictional account of the Newton-Rachel saga; unfortunately, most white people forget that it is fiction and tend to believe every word of it.  I decided that Rachel needed to be researched from an unbiased perspective and without prejudice, so I want to tell her story.

I began seriously researching the Smiths by first interviewing my Aunt Mable Smith Fielder in 1996. Aunt Mable had an encyclopedic memory and helped me recall many of the stories told by Rachel’s granddaughters, Ollie and Octavia Knight.  These stories were told during those afternoon family gatherings when the two aunts would come to our house to wait out the summer storms that would pop up out of nowhere in South Mississippi.

The basis for my research was a family tree given to me by my grandmother the summer prior to her death in 1968. After Aunt Mable’s passing in 1996, I turned to my mother and her cousin, Cleo Knight Garraway. Unlike my Aunt Mable, my mother and Cleo couldn’t understand why I wanted to dig up the past, which was something they had tried to live down and seemed ashamed to talk about it.  Cleo said that if I kept on digging, I was “going to find out something I didn’t want to know.”  I explained that I felt that my generation deserved the right to know from whom, where, and what we have come, whether good or bad.

Introduction: “White Negroes” in Jim Crow Mississippi

When I was a child growing up in north Forrest County, Mississippi, about seven miles northwest of Hattiesburg and just a mile or so from the Jones County line, I used to listen to “stories about the old days growing up in Soso (MS)” told by my Aunt Tavy, Aunt Ollie and of course my grandparents, Warren and Jerolee Smith.  Whenever a thunderstorm started brewing, the two aunts would gather at our house to wait it out.  I really enjoyed these times because the stories they told about growing up in Jasper County, with its colorful cast of characters and places, fascinated me and rivaled any HBO movie today.

One thing that was made quite clear from these stories is that the children fathered by Jesse Davis, Newt and Dan Knight all lived in peaceful coexistence with their white kin before Newton died.  Aunt Tavy, daughter of John Floyd Knight, said that she was almost grown before she had any idea that she was considered to be a “Negro.”  She was about 22 years old when Newton died and remembered having Sunday dinner with his family by his wife, Serena, and sitting on his lap combing his beard and playing at his feet.  They told stories of games the children played and mischievous tricks played on each other. I learned from these sessions that although they did not consider themselves white, they also did not consider themselves black; instead, they thought of themselves as somewhere in between. Much depended on the depth of one’s complexion, which unfortunately caused some contention and resentment among members of Rachel’s family.  They were definitely “color struck” and encouraged their children to marry their “own kind,” even cousins, in order to keep their light complexions.  They did not associate with the local blacks in a social way which caused curiosity, rumors and animosity in the community.

After the 1930’s, a number of the families (the so called Knight “white Negroes”) moved out of Mississippi, going where they were not known, and never to return.  Those that remained either did not have the courage to pass for white (and accepted the “one drop” definition of a Black person), or stayed to themselves creating tight-knitted, isolated communities such as Six Town. Others, like my grandparents, moved into communities of “white Negroes” where groups shared the same ancestry, customs and values.  In Mississippi a “Negro” was defined as someone with a single Negro great-grandparent, in this case Rachel or at least one of her parents. At one time, all of my kinfolks related to the Knights lived in the Soso and Six Town communities in Jones and Jasper County, MS.  It was only after Newt Knight died and they lost his protection that they began to leave the area. One part of the “open secret” is that there was an unwritten code that “you do not mess” with the mixed-race children of white fathers.

According to my Mother, things really got hot in Six Town when a group of white boys took “Addie Knight off to the woods and used her for several days.” Addie, who was the daughter of Henry Knight, Rachel’s grandson, and my grandfather’s sister, Susan Ella Smith, was very attractive.  Word got out that the Knights and Smiths were looking for the perpetrators which in turn caused the whites to threaten them for causing trouble and “forgetting their place.”   If Newt had been living, this would not have occurred.

Addie Knight, from Yvonne Bivins Collection

Addie Knight, from Yvonne Bivins Collection

Uncle L. D. “Bud” Smith was married to Aunt Ollie Knight,  the daughter of J. E. “Jeff” Knight and Newt’s daughter, Martha Ann Eliza Jane “Mollie” (Jeff and Mollie Knight were first cousins once removed). After the incident with Addie, Uncle Bud, who owned a prosperous store in Six Town, had to give up the store and move away.  He, Aunt Ollie and their boys packed up their belongings and moved to the Kelly Settlement Community which had a large population of “white Negroes”.  He purchased land from George Dahmer and built a house on the Monroe Road next door to John Calhoun Kelly in the Kelly Settlement.

I do not know when Ollie’s brother, Ezra Knight, who married my grandfather’s sister, Necia Smith, moved from Six Town nor do I know just why he moved. Ezra owned a house on 4th Street just across the tracks that divided the white and black sections of town in Hattiesburg.  Ezra worked for the City and his wife, called Daught, made cloths for rich white clients. They attempted to pass for white and were listed as Indians on the 1930 census for Forrest Count, MS.  When people who suspected their true racial identity would ask if they were related to my folks, they would deny kinship because they did not want to make trouble for them.  Ironically, there was a fair-skinned black family by the name of Britton living around the corner that had a much lighter skin tone than Ezra’s family.

Necia "Daught" Anderson Smith, collection of Yvonne Bivins

Necia "Daught" Anderson Smith, collection of Yvonne Bivins

Necia Anderson Smith Knight, Collection of Janet Carver

Necia "Daught" Anderson Smith Knight, Collection of Janet Carver

Sometime between the publication of James Street’s novel, Tap Roots (1943) or the release of the movie in 1948, Ezra’s wife Daught purchased a box car, packed their possessions and moved the family to Memphis, Tennessee, where they successfully passed for white. Street’s novel was loosely based on Newt Knight and his gang of deserters.  It is said that Daught was buried somewhere close to Elvis Presley’s mother in Forest Hills Cemetery in Memphis but I have not found evidence of this.  Of course, Elvis’ mother’s body was later moved to Graceland.  Afraid that their secret would come out, Daught and Ezra did not attend the funerals of her mother, stepfather, brother, sister nor their two nephews who died before she and Ezra moved to Tennessee.  All of them had lived in the mixed race community of Kelly Settlement.

Leonard Ezra Knight, collection of Yvonne Bivins

Leonard Ezra Knight, collection of Yvonne Bivins

There were but two options open to Rachel’s descendants, as with other so-called “white Negroes” in the South. The first option was to remain in Mississippi as my grandparents chose to do. By making this choice, they accepted their lot to suffer racial discrimination and prejudice under Jim Crow laws as blacks. Some chose to marry blacks, while some continued to marry other “white Negroes,” even cousins, to keep the color in the family.

Eventually, my grandparents, Uncle Wilder Knight, Aunt Tavy, Aunt Candace, Papa Floyd and Grandma Lucy Knight joined Uncle Bud in the Kelly Settlement and remained there until they all passed away.  All are buried in a single line of graves in the cemetery of the Shady Grove Baptist Church on Church House Road in Eastabutchie, MS.  Shady Grove Baptist Church was founded in 1863 by newly-freed descendants of John Kelly and his former slaves.  Several of the graves are unmarked; however, I remember where each is buried because my grandmother would take me there to clean up and put flowers on them during the annual “Big Meeting”.

The other option for Rachel’s descendants was to move to other states where they were not known and could  passa blanca (pass for white).  For example, Larkin Knight, Rachel’s grandson by her son Jeffrey, moved to Georgia, used the name Lawrence, and married a white woman named Blanche Arnau.  He later moved to Louisville, KY, where he became manager of a loan company, an opportunity unavailable at that time to a black man. A number of Rachel’s descendants left Mississippi during the 1920s and 1930s, with some moving to Little Rock, Arkansas, others to Calcasieu Parish, LA, or to Port Arthur, Texas, where they were not known and successfully passed for white.

Yvonne Bivins

Click here for Part II: The Story of Rachel Knight

 

36 replies »

  1. In response to Yvonne’s essay, I received the following comments from Janet Carver, a granddaughter of Necia Anderson Smith and Ezra Knight. Her remarks provide another fascinating glimpse into multiracial people of the early twentieth century and their struggles to determine the course of their own lives amid the legal and social restrictions applied to citizens of African and Native American descent. With her permission, I have posted her words:

    “I just read on your site the first part of Rachel Knight’s story. My mama could not remember the town they lived in outside of Hattiesburg. I did not know she was called Daught and mama said she sewed clothes, all this is true. We used to visit grandma [Necia Knight] in Memphis, they lived on Felix Street. I loved that house. To someone as small as I was, it was huge. But grandma did not believe in air conditioning and it was so hot. I remember when mama had to go and stay there when grandma broke her leg.

    Grandma and Uncle Irving moved to a house near the Fairgrounds, where she took in a boarder from India. I can remember a few things about Grandma, not much, I was young. She always made me a coconut cake. I’ll never forget, she would sit at the kitchen table and tell us, (me and my sister) how to dye the coconut. I wish I had known her. My mama looks so much like her, now. My mother is not in good health and lives with my sister.

    I am going to visit with my mama this week and maybe she will feel like talking more. I do remember her saying my Granddad Ezra worked at a store in Hattiesburg stocking and delivering goods to customers. They lived in a community outside of Hattiesburg, and Grandma would not let mama and her brothers and sisters go to school; she and granddad taught them. She said one time the Officers came to the door to get the kids for school. She had shotgun shells in her apron and a shotgun in the corner. They did not come back again.

    Mama said Granddad would sit at the table with a lantern learning to write. Everyone in the household taught each other the basics of school work. All of her brothers and sisters can play some type of musical instrument, mama plays piano by ear, also the guitar. They also sang with the USO for the Army.”

    Janet Carver

  2. This is so fascinating! I was born and raised in Hattiesburg and I remember going to preschool in the Kelly Settlement area. I remember my grandad, who was very fair himself, talking about the history of this area. This is a story that should be shared with the world.

    • Are you listening, Yvonne? You’ve got to get this stuff published! Meanwhile, I’m doing my best to bring your history to the world.

      Vikki

  3. My Grandmother, Bradie Cordell Knight, from Red Boiling Springs was a direct descendant of Rachel & “Newt” Knight.
    Her father was Walter Houston Knight.
    I have a family photo of Joseph Newton Knight and Rachel Jenkins Knight if anyone would be interested.

    My Grandmother (since departed) always would thell me that her family was referred to as “Black-Dutch”.

    Thank you for all of the time you’ve taken to collect this history.

    • Thanks for commenting, Steve! I would love to post more about your individual line, and also your photos. Hope to hear more from you.

      Vikki

    • Steve, my father who passed away several years ago was quite a genealogy nut and as a result I got the virus infection from him. I am one of the many great-great-great grandchildren of John “Jackie” Knight.

      You mentioned the “Black Dutch” ethic term as I have heard that term used by my late father. One of Jackie Knight’s grand daughters Annice Brumfield, married Andrew Dahmer a German immigrant and successful merchant, I think he had a store in NE Covington County. My dad had heard of the ethnic term and he beleived that the mixed race Dahmer line went back to Andrew Dahmer’s slaves who took the name, if not the genes after freedom.

      I am dark complected and beleive that my olive complection comes from Choctaw lineage that goes back before MS territory days, and so far untraceable. Another theory is that I am a product of “Black Irish Lineage”, referred to the “Spanish, Moorish” influence impressed upon Ireland from the early invasion by Spain. I hope some day that another genealogy nut gives me the key to this part of my heritage so I can celebrate my skin regardless of the source.

      • Redcloudhunter:

        Thank you for a very interesting post. The multiethnic Dahmer line has a long history in Jones County, right alongside the Knights, Smiths, and Ainsworths.

        Coincidently, Yvonne Bivins will be contributing a post on the Dahmer line in the near future.

        Vikki

  4. GREAT STUFF! I AM A JACKSON STATE UNIVERSITY HISTORY MAJOR AND I FACINATED ABOUT THE KNIGHT HISTORY. HAVE YOU GOTTEN TO THE HISTORY OF ANDY KNIGHT’S DESCENDANTS IN THE SOSO COMMUNITY?HE WAS CONSIDERD RICH BY VIRTUE OF OWNING HUNDREDS OF ACREAS OF LAND.

    THE GREAT ANTICIPATER

    • Thanks for writing Dale; I’m pleased to know you find the Knight history so interesting.

      Yvonne, I think Dale’s question is for you.

      Vikki

  5. Hi Vikki and Dale,

    Yes, I have information on the Andy Knight line that goes back to Phillys Knight and Andy Carter who were his grandparents. I am posting that information on Angestry.com under Rachel Knight and Harret Carter.

    • Hello Susan,

      I have not researched the Corley/Cauley family, but the Knight family book by Jan Sumrall and Kenneth Welch has some genealogical information on Patsy. According to Ken Welch, who spelled the name “Cawley,” Patsy was the daughter of Beaslam and Mariah Cawley, and was born March 19, 1835, and died Feb. 3, 1895.

      Thanks for your question; perhaps our readers can add more information on this family line.

      Vikki

    • Susan,

      I’m Joyce Corley Falkenstein, I live in California. My dad, Earl Corley, was from Collins MS. My mom Myrtle Ishee, was from Sumarall MS. I was born and raised in Pascagoula MS.
      My family tree shows that Patsey Corley my great grandfathers daughter married Albert Knight, Newt Knights brother. In the book “Echo of the Black Horn” by Ethel Knight page 178-179, has more information on the Corleys. Also the book “The Free state of Jones” by Victoria Bynum.

      I have more information that you may be interested in just let me know.
      Joyce

  6. joyce,

    would love to get any info that you may have. pictures! would be much appreciated. i have read all books on newt, but can’t seem to find out anything about albert jr and his wife.

    thank
    sue keen

  7. Sue,

    I have much information on the Corley family on my dads and Patsy side. My mom is from the Coleman line. I’m looking for anything on Ishee, my moms maiden name. I found Coleman mentioned in Vickis book.

    I’m so new at this kind of communicating I’m not sure how to get this to you. I would be happy to mail it if you want to give me your address?. I will pass this site on to my niece, who does the geneology, and ask her to get in touch with you.

    I fell into this after reading The Echo of the Black Horn, then found The free State of Jones, and found a ton of my relatives in Vicki’s book. I also read The State of Jones, I’ve just finished it. I’m not sure yet what I think about that one.

    Joyce

  8. Joyce,

    Thank you for contacting Sue through Renegade South, and for your willingness to share information on the Corley family. with your permission, I can send your personal email address to Sue, or you may choose to wait for her to answer you on this forum.

    Vikki

  9. Vicki,

    Thanks for your help. As I read your book The Free State of Jones, I underline all the names that correspond to my list of names in my genealogy. It’s too many to type out here. I would be happy to send Sue a copy, and also one for you if you don’t already have all you need.

    I appreciate you and your book. I will be getting your new book as soon as I can. Thanks for sending the address.

    Joyce

  10. Vikki,
    I have enjoyed your work and research so much!
    Is The Renagade South published as a magazine?
    How do I go about reading it as soon as it is published?
    Would please reply to my e-mail
    Thank you so very much.
    Kathleen T. Lott

    • Thank you so much for writing, Kathleen! I love it when people tell me that they’re enjoying Renegade South. I’ve never considered publishing it as a magazine or even as a collection, but it’s not a bad idea. Thanks to all the folks who have contributed guest essays and comments, there is a wealth of great family history on here, and it would be a shame to ever lose it. Publishing Renegade South in hardcopy would prevent that.

      Vikki

  11. IS there a “Part 2″ by Ms Bivins written about Rachel Knight? I have found parts 1 and 3.
    Thanks
    Kathleen T.Lott

  12. Blanche Arnau Knight, who Lawrence LARKIN Knight married in Georgia was my Great Aunt. We never knew his history.

    Thank you for all of your time putting this narrative together!

    • Alison,

      It’s great to know that these posts and comments are reaching family researchers such as yourself! Thanks for writing us.

      Vikki

  13. Hello Everybody,
    I’M still trying to put the Pieces of this Puzzle together. My Mother is Victoria (Vicki) Knight Daughter of Olin C. Knight who’s Dad was Leonard Ezra Knight. Who his Dad was Jeffrey Early Knight my Great Great Grandfather I have Pictures of.So, Captain Newton Knight is my 6 Generation Great Grand Father?Or 4 th.It’s to much for ancestry. com

    • I hope Yvonne will reply to your question, Victoria, but it appears that your line back to Newt Knight goes like this: Victoria Sandrock> Victoria Knight> Olin C. Knight> Leonard Ezra Knight> Mollie Knight (wife of Jeffrey, who was the son of Rachel)>Newt Knight. That would indeed make you part of the 6th generation of descendants from both Newt Knight and Rachel Knight.

      Vikki

  14. My name is Stanley Crosby.. I’m from Boston, but my father’s family is from soso…they are fair skinned people as well.. Crosby Family is really big.. was wondering if anyone had info… I think my great grandmother is Rachel Knights Grandaughter… Formerly Almeida Musgrove..

  15. Hello Family and Friends, I am Alice Elayn Croxton, daughter of Adell Knight who is the grand daughter of Harriett’s oldest child Andy Knight. I will be hosting a Knight Family Reunion in Cincinnati, Ohio in July, 2013 for all descendants of Harriet Carter Knight Ward and Ike Ward and all other related family and friends. Please accept this as my personal invitation for all to attend. We would be especially thrilled to have Vickki or Yvonne attend as a special guest and speaker. Please email if either one or preferably both of you lovely ladies could attend. Thank you both sooooo much for sharing your information.

    • Hello Alice, I am Barry Knight from Erie Pa. I also am a direct descendant of Harriett’s and I would love to attend the Cinncinatti Reunion in 2013. The last reunion that I was at was here in Erie, Pa. in 1997. Please post Names, addresses phone#’s etc. of who we need to contact to find out specifics.

  16. Stanley, Almeda’s mother was Martha Ann Knight Musgrove, Martha Ann’s mother was Fannie Knight and Fannie’s mother was Rachel Knight. Victoria Bynum’s book “The Free State of Jones” can provide you with lots of information. Not sure exactly what info you are looking for but I do have some thanks to Victoria Bynum. Give your nephew Dwayne a call.

  17. Hello Alica and Barry, I am a descendant ( ggg grand-dughter) of Harriet Carter Knight Ward and Ike Ward’s daughter Hettie Ward. I too would love to attend the family reunion with my grandmother. Neither of us have ever attended a Knight family event. I look forward to receiving the details and meeting everyone in July.

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