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.
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.
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.
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.
Click here for Part II: The Story of Rachel Knight