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Rachel Knight

by

Sondra Yvonne Bivins

 

Rachel’s Children Fathered by Jesse Davis Knight 

      Slaves had few legal rights, least of all to marry and have children. Just two years after arriving on Jackie Knight’s place, Rachel became the slave mistress of his son, Jesse Davis Knight.  Illicit interracial sexual relationships were not unusual in the antebellum South in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Jesse Davis Knight’s liaison with Rachel resulted in the birth of three known children: Jeffery Earley, Edmund, and Frances.

      Early in 1858, Rachel gave birth to a son, her third child.  Jeffery Earley was born a slave, owned by his grandfather, John “Jackie”  Knight. By law, the status of the mother determined the status of the children, so Rachel and her children were his property.   After slavery, while still a teenager, Jeffery married Martha Ann Eliza Jane, “Mollie,” the daughter of Serena and Newton Knight. The rumor mill started immediately, with claims that Newt forced his daughter to marry the former slave boy who in physical appearance was nearly white and who after all shared the same grandfather.  To local whites it was just impossible for a white girl to become attracted to and fall in love with a Negro; however, to the family this was just the case.  Jeffery and Mollie had grown up working and playing together on Newton’s farm.  Newton was well aware of this, and so he determined to erase any vestige of Negro in both Rachel’s and George Ann’s children.

      To the union of Jeffery and Mollie were born the following children: Ollie Jane (1883); Charles Madison (1886); Lawrence Larkin (1887); Altimara (1890); Leonard Ezra(1892); Chauncie Omar (1897); and Otho (1900). In 1890, Jeffery had an outside affair with Newton’s youngest daughter, Cora Ann, and fathered a son named Billy (1891).  In March 1817, two months after Mollie died from uterine cancer, he married Susan Ella Smith.  J. E. lived and died in the Six Town Community and did not associate socially with Blacks.

      Edmond was born on February 8, 1861 two months prior to the first shots fired at Ft. Sumter, SC.  He died when he was about sixteen or seventeen years old.

      Frances, who was called Fan, was born March 18, 1863 and married Newt’s white son George Madison, “Matt,” in Dec 1878. She had nine children before he deserted her for a white cousin named Francis Smith.  Fan later married an itinerate preacher named Dock Howze from Clarke County, MS.  In 1914, she denied under oath that she was black. It is possible, but not proven, that Dock Howze was a part-Choctaw whose given name was Benson Howze. 

      According to family stories, Jeffrey Early and Fan both had deep-seated issues with being defined as “Negroes.” Although Fan had delicate features, she could not pass for a white person, so she claimed to be mixed with French and Native American.  All of Jeffrey Early’s children by Newton’s daughter Mollie married white, almost white, or to relatives to avoid being classified as Negroes. They were raised as white in an isolated environment and had difficulty being accepted by either whites or blacks.  Their situation reminds me of the song that Kermit the Frog sang about “It’s Not Easy Being Green.”

Rachel’s Children Fathered by Newton Knight 

            The ex-slave Martha Wheeler said it best.  Children of white fathers were given privileges that other former slaves did not have.  As soon as Newton’s children were old enough, the indoctrination began.  Newt indoctrinated them with an elitist attitude that made them believe they were somehow better than the average black because of their white blood. He helped build a school in the community and attempted to send his children by Rachel to that school.  When the local whites rejected them, it is said that he burned it down. 

      Martha Ann Knight was born August 15, 1866.  She had long, bushy hair and light complexion, café au lait, or coffee with cream color.  She married Samuel Knight whose parents were Daniel Thomas Knight, Newt’s cousin, and Harriet Carter, another of John Knight’s slaves.  Martha and Samuel had four children: Sidney, Amos, Viola Ode and Senia.  Martha and Samuel encouraged their children to marry someone of their own kind.  All except Senia married a cousin. Senia fell in love with and married a black man named Robert Johnson.  The couple eventually had to move away to avoid harassment. 

         John Stewart, born in May 1868, was believed to be homosexual by family members and never married. Anyone breaking the peace in the family was accused of acting like Stewart. Living alone, he was brutally hacked to death in 1920 by locals looking for money. 

      John Floyd was born in 1871. His first wife was a white girl named Sophronia Cox. He married her in 1890.  The marriage was witnessed by her brother Richard C. Cox.   There is no record of Floyd’s marriage to Lucy Ainsworth Smith.  Quill Anderson stated that his family moved to the Soso area around 1895.  Floyd and Lucy had three children: William Wilder (1895), Ivy Jane (1898) and Octavia “Tavy” (1900).  Floyd died in 1942 after suffering a stroke. He is buried in the cemetery of Shady Grove Church in the Kelly Settlement Community.

      Augusta Ann “Gustan” was born April 22, 1873. After the death of her mother, she lived with several of her siblings, the last of whom was Martha Ann. Gustan married William Watts of Lamar County, MS in 1906.  Her children attended Oakwood College in Huntsville, AL.

      John “Hinchie” Madison was born in 1875. Hinchie married Lucy Ainsworth’s daughter, Mary Florence Magdalene “Maggie” Smith in 1893. Their marriage is recorded the white Marriage Record Book at the Ellisville Court House. Hinchie was a prosperous farmer.  His fifteen children mostly remained in the Soso community or in Mississippi, with a few moving to California in the 1950s. 

      With the exception of John Floyd during his brief marriage to Sophronia Cox, none of Rachel’s children fathered by Newton passed for white.  

 Open Secrets

      In the antebellum South and after the War, white men believed and accepted that it was a natural rite of passage to manhood to sexually exploit black women, which resulted in families of mixed race children like those of Rachel Knight.   Everyone in the slave community knew who fathered Rachel’s children, but it was not openly discussed.  Since she was raised from birth to be a slave, Rachel was aware that she did not own her own body; she was property and did not have the right to reject sexual advances. The white woman on the other hand was expected to be a loving and dutiful wife, an affectionate mother, and subservient to her husband. It was easy for her to blame the slave for her husband or son’s indiscretion. In the South, white women were powerless and little more than servants, too. Unlike today, divorcing a husband who had extramarital relationships was frowned upon and not an easy to obtain. The white mistress often punished the slave woman for her husband’s wrong-doings, telling herself that the powerless slave seduced her husband, or even demanding that the slave be sold to remove the temptation.

      There remains to this day a hush-hush “open secret” and outright denial of past race-mixing in the South by slave masters. After emancipation, Newt, like many fathers of mixed race families, provided land and financial assistance to his off-spring which resulted sometimes in the development of elitist attitudes among them and resentment by neighbors, both black and white. Often when a mixed race person was successful in any endeavor, whites would exclaim that it was their “white blood.” In general, after the Civil War blacks were treated with callous contempt by whites; however, children fathered by their former masters were given a certain amount of protection from local harassment that lasted as long as the white father lived. The descendants of Rachel Knight, who were neither accepted nor openly rejected by their white and black neighbors, came under attack after Newt Knight died in 1922. Two of Fan Knight’s grandchildren, Rachel Dorothy and Fred Nolan, were poisoned by local whites in the early twenties, while Fan and Dock Howze both died under mysterious circumstances in 1916.  It should be noted that Newton was not the only white man in Jones and neighboring counties committing miscegenation; the others simply did not openly flaunt their relationships. 

Rachel Dorothy Knight, daughter of Mat Knight (son of Newt and Serena) and Fannie Knight (daughter of Jesse Davis and Rachel Knight). Collection of Ardella Knight Barrett. Rachel Dorothy Knight, daughter of Mat Knight (son of Newt and Serena) and Fannie Knight (daughter of Jesse Davis and Rachel Knight). Collection of Ardella Knight Barrett.

 

Slave Narrative of Martha Wheeler,  former slave of John “Jackie” Knight  

      In the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), to interview former slaves to preserve a picture of the African-American experience with slavery.   Martha Wheeler was interviewed in the Hebron neighborhood when she was 86 years old.  She states in the interview that she was one of Jacky Knight’s slaves born on his place and at the age of eight, was sold Elizabeth Coleman Knight after his death.

      The following is what she had to say about Newt, Rachel and George Ann:

“For many years the Knights seldom married outside of their family, but Newt and his family were the only ones to mix extensively with the Negroes. Rachel was considered his woman, then he moved her to his place and her daughter, Georgiann, took her place and separated him from his wife, who went out and lived, until her death a few years ago, among her children. He never married the Negro but brought up a family of seven with her at his old home place and died among them. He is buried in Jasper County half way between Stringer and Soso, one mile west of the road. His Negro children were given advantages and are said by many to be handsome. One girl lives in the old home. Another is high in school circles and served as a missionary to Japan and a third married a white man from other parts and has never been back home. His wife is buried at Palestine Church, three miles from Laurel on the Bay Springs road, now U. S. Highway 15. Newt’s parents, Mason and Albert, are buried at Hebron cemetery right at Solon Huff’s house. Their graves are probably at the beginning of the cemetery.” 

 Embracing My One Drop

After being questioned by a friend, I had to take a bit of time to reflect on why I choose to embrace my “one drop” of African blood and must admit that it has been an emotional reflection. It would be very difficult to believe that I am African American if I did not tell you so.

When I began researching my family line, something or someone kept tugging at me to keep digging for the truth.  I knew that once I published my ancestry, it would cause some anxiety and denial from some of my relatives.  I felt a deep sense of needing to connect with my ancestor and became curious to know just who that woman was that survived the anguishing trip from the shores of Africa and endured the horrors of slavery, never-ending work, and rape. I envisioned that she was young, strong  and slender with a coal black complexion and kinky hair–not like the character that Ethel Knight described in Echo of the Black Horn, which is the only description of Rachel that exists other than what I was told about her.  It seems to me that she was calling me to set the record straight, because so many of her descendents had either denied her existence or claimed she was something other than a strong black woman.

If I could meet her mother, I would want to know where she was born, the places she lived, when she was abducted and when and by whom she was captured.  Did she come directly to the New World or did she get broken in the Caribbean Islands?  How many generations passed before Rachel was born?  These are questions that will forever remain unanswered because my family lineage stops with a bill of sale when she was purchased by John “Jackie” Knight. 

  As a child, I grew up in an environment where I was instilled with middle class values and taught to be proud of my racial heritage.   I was taught to value honest work and an education and not the color of my skin or any other physical attributes.  My mother made many sacrifices for us, never missing a day of work in 32 years in order that we might go to college. She was a great role model. 

Mary Ann Smith Dodds, mother of Yvonne Bivins. Collection of Yvonne Bivins. Mary Ann Smith Dodds, mother of Yvonne Bivins. Collection of Yvonne Bivins.

      I remember that my grandmother was often asked why she chose to be black by whites.  She would boldly say that she chose to be black because if she were white, she’d be poor white and would rather be a dog.  She didn’t think too highly of poor whites.  According to her, they had been white and free all their lives and no reason to be poor. My Grandfather just quietly accepted his lot.

Note: This is the final installment of Yvonne Bivins’s history of Rachel Knight. My thanks to Yvonne for sharing her research with Renegade South.

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RACHEL KNIGHT

BY

SONDRA YVONNE BIVINS

Rachel Knight was about sixteen years old when John “Jackie” Knight of Covington County, MS, came into possession of her in the spring of 1856.  Rachel was born on March 14, 1840 in Macon, GA.  Mormon Missionary records show that her parents were named Abraham and Viney.  That is all we know of her past life.  At about the time Rachel arrived on Jackie Knight’s place his brother, James Knight, moved from Monroe County to Bibb County to live with his son, Thomas.  It is quite possible that Rachel was first owned by James Knight.  One of the constant threats that slaves faced was the danger of being sold away from family.  By the time Rachel was fifteen years old, she had two children, Rosetta and George Ann. The fact that George Ann was nearly white possibly caused some dissention in Georgia, and may be the reason Rachel and her girls were sold.  I have no proof that this was the case; however, I do know that historically, a white slave child born on a plantation caused friction in the family of the owner.  Ironically, the white mistress typically blamed the slave woman for her husband’s indiscretion; thus, the vixen described in Echo of the Black Horn was born.

My grandfather, Warren Smith, described Rachel as a “Guinea Negro,” meaning she was racially mixed but did not look white, nor was she light-skinned, but had “nice hair”–not kinky and shoulder length. To get an idea of how Rachel must have looked, I began to prod my mother to tell me exactly what my grandfather said about Rachel. According to my mother, he said that she looked like another woman who had lived in our community when she was growing up. This woman was short in stature, had a dark brown complexion and long thick coarse black hair that was not kinky. Hearing this, I realized that Rachel undoubtedly looked very much like her daughter, Martha Ann Knight who, in my opinion, could easily pass for an Australian Aborigine.

Martha Ann Knight, daughter of Rachel Knight and probably Newt Knight. Collection of Yvonne Bivins.

Martha Ann Knight, daughter of Rachel Knight and probably Newt Knight. Collection of Yvonne Bivins.

Shortly after Rachel arrived on John Knight’s plantation, his son, Jesse Davis, began a sexual relationship with her.  His relationship with Rachel resulted in the birth of Jeffrey Early on March 15, 1858. Given the tenuousness of her condition, it is doubtful that Rachel would have seduced Jesse.  She already knew what happened when a slave woman gave birth a “white child,” because it had happened to her before; she was sold.  In John Jackie Knight’s will, dated September 4, 1860, he willed Rachel and Jeffrey to Jesse Davis.  The will reads as follows:

“…and to my son, Jesse D. Knight I do will and bequeath a certain Negro woman named Rachel and Jeffrey, her child with her increase, if any, on his paying to each of the heirs of my son, Benjamin Knight, deceased.”

The estate was auctioned on March 20, 1861 almost a year before shots were fired at Ft. Sumter, SC.  After Jesse came into possession of Rachel, Edward was born on February 8, 1861 and then Fanny was born March 18, 1863.  Now mind you, Jesse had a wife and ten children with the last born in January 1863.

Jesse Davis was mustered in the 27th Mississippi Infantry of the Confederate States of America in November or December 1861. In December 1863, Jesse Davis contracted measles during the Battle of Atlanta and died of pneumonia. He was buried in the Civil War Cemetery in Atlanta, GA.

Newt’s relationship with Rachel began toward the end of the Civil War when it is believed she helped him and his band of deserters and marauders evade capture during his raids on supply trains. Rachel was very superstitious and practiced using herbs for healing and warding off wild animals and such.

During the five years after the War Newton’s and Rachel’s relationship was firmly established. Newt set Rachel and her children up in a house next door to his family and brought them up as white. Unlike most whites in the Piney Woods who were keeping “open secrets,” he did not hide his relationships with Rachel and her daughter George Ann. This was taboo and disturbing to local residents both white and black. Newt’s reputation for punishing anyone who crossed him kept anyone from attempting to harass his family.  Before he died in 1922, he had become a living legend and the centerpiece of the legend of the Free State of Jones.

According to census records, on July 14, 1870, Rachel and her children lived next door to Newt and Serena in the Southwest Beat of Jasper County. Rachel was described as a black female, age 30, born in Georgia. In her house were six children: George Ann, a mulatto female, age 17; Jefferson (Jeffery), a mulatto male, age 15; Edmond, a mulatto male, age 13; Fancy (Fan), a mulatto female, age 11; Marsha (Martha), a mulatto female, age 9; and Stuart, a mulatto male, age 7. Newton ran his home in a harem-like fashion having simultaneous relationships with Serena, his wife, Rachel, and George Ann, Rachel’s daughter. During the early 1870s, George Ann gave birth to two children that many believe were fathered by Newton: John Howard, born August 1871, and Rachel Anna, born March 1874.  However, Cleo Garraway, Howard’s granddaughter, said that she never heard anyone say that Newt was the father of her grandfather, Howard, or her Aunt Anna. After Rachel’s death in 1889, Gracie was born in November 1891 and Lessie was born in May 1894. Cleo was so ashamed of the circumstances of her birth, she did not care to know from whom she was descended.

Cleo Knight Garraway, daughter of John Howard Knight, son of George Ann Knight. Collection of Yvonne Bivins.

Cleo Knight Garraway, daughter of John Howard Knight, the only son of George Ann Knight. Collection of Yvonne Bivins.

As soon as Rachel’s children and grandchildren were old enough to marry, Newt encouraged them to marry whites or at least someone nearly white.  According to information I have gleaned from family stories, he wanted to erase that “one drop” of Negro blood in their veins.  Many whites believe or want to believe that Newt forced his two older children to marry Rachel’s Jeffrey and Fan as claimed in Echo of the Black Horn, but family history says “not so.” Contrary to popular belief, Rachel’s children coexisted in relative harmony with their white kin and neighbors, including Tom.

While having children with Rachel, the domineering, larger-than-life Newton continued to have children with his wife, Serena Turner, whose last child was born in 1875.  Indeed, Serena was the quintessentially dutiful southern wife, dependent on her husband and silently suffering the personal degradation of Newt’s relationships with Rachel and George Ann.  The 1910 census shows her living in the home of her daughter, Mollie.  Was she simply tired of living with Newt, or was she so old and infirm that she had to move in with the daughter for care?

Serena Knight in old age. Collection of Yvonne Bivins.

Serena Knight in old age. Collection of Yvonne Bivins.

In June, 1880, Rachel Knight and her children still lived next door to Newton and Serena.  On the census, she is described as a black female, age 40 (prior to June 1), born in Georgia.  Her parents are listed as born in Virginia.  Living in the household were George Ann, a mulatto female, age 26; Jeffrey, a mulatto male, age 22; Martha Ann, a mulatto female, age 15; John S[teward], a mulatto male, age 12; John Floyd, a mulatto male age 10; and Augusta Ann, a mulatto female, age 7.  This census contains several mistakes; e.g. Jeff Knight is listed two houses down from Rachel at dwelling 105 and also included in Rachel’s house at dwelling 107.  George Ann is also listed twice, first as daughter then as granddaughter.  George Ann’s household included herself, a mulatto female, age 26 (erroneously identified as Rachel’s granddaughter); John H[oward], a mulatto male, age 9 (grandson); and Rachel (Anna), a mulatto female, age 6 (granddaughter).

George Ann Knight, daughter of Rachel Knight. Collection of Yvonne Bivins

George Ann Knight, daughter of Rachel Knight. Collection of Yvonne Bivins

The Mormon Church began proselytizing throughout the South and in particular Jones County in the early 1880’s.  Rachel, along with Fan and her family, was convinced to join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. According to Knight researcher Kenneth Welch, Rachel traveled out to Utah but came back to Mississippi because it was too cold.

At Rachel’s place, located near Newt’s, family members worked very hard but made a good living on the self-sufficient farm, They earned money to pay for things like coffee, sugar and goods like shoes and dishes. They raised cows for milk and butter; raised chickens and sold eggs; planted fields and sold the produce; canned vegetables from a small garden, and even made their clothes.  Life was hard; they lived on a farm in an isolated community located near the Jasper-Jones county line.

In February, 1889, Rachel died; she was only 49 years old.  She did not leave a will but left about 180 acres of farm land for her children. According to family members, she died from having too many babies too close together.  A child was born to her every two years beginning at the age of fourteen. In 1914, Rachel’s children filed a lawsuit against J. R. McPherson in order to keep their land inheritance.

Yvonne Bivins

click here for part three!

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Submitted by Janet Carver, granddaughter of Necia Anderson Smith and Ezra Knight

the Smith-Knight Family, Collection of Janet Carver

the Knight-Smith Family, from collection of Janet Carver

 Photo taken @ 1938.

Back row, left to right:

Olin Calvin, Osie, Dovie, Necia, Ezra, Rose Merry, Delvia, J. Lynn

Front row, left to right:

Ruth, Minerva, Irving, Martha (daughter of Delvia)

 

Thanks to Janet Carver and Yvonne Bivins for identifying family members.

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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

 

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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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[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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I’m pleased to announce that my current book-in-progress has a new title.  Southern Communities at War: Essays in Civil War Dissent and Its Legacies, is now The Long Shadow of  the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies.

I love the new title, suggested by book-launch wizards at the University of North Carolina Press to give a more accurate sense of the book’s breadth. (Several essays extend well beyond the Civil War, although all connect to the war.) 

If you’re unfamiliar with my new work,  click here for an overview. For the table of contents, click here,  for an excerpt from the introduction, here.

A few more months, and The Long Shadow of the Civil War will be a finished product!

Vikki Bynum

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Earlier today, Yvonne Bivins sent the following comment to Renegade South. Given her extensive research and her personal connections to the Jones County Knights, I have, with her permission, converted her comment to a post. 

Vikki Bynum, Moderator

 

A Critique of The State of Jones

As a librarian and someone knowledgeable about my family history after researching for more than ten years, I found it took me almost two weeks to actually read the Jenkins/Stauffer book. I finally came to the same conclusion about this book as I did Echo of the Black Horn [by Ethel Knight]; it is fiction, historical fiction. I cannot believe and am quite disappointed that a Harvard Professor would produce such a poorly documented work. It sickens me. I stopped to tag all the pages that had words like “apparently” and phrases like “it is possible that” to describe incidents. The authors lead readers to believe that Newt was the only white man with such families of mixed race children living near their white families and that he was the only one to deed land to his mixed-race offspring. When I began my research, I stopped to read many books on the subject of slavery, miscegenation, slave mistresses and their relationship to slave concubines, etc. in order to gain a better understanding of the character of their relationships. I am tempted to write Doubleday to complain about this book.

Yvonne Bivins

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by Victoria E. Bynum, author of The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

The following is the third and final installment of my review of State of Jones, by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer. To read part one, click here; for part two, click here.

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.”

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Yvonne Bivins has written extensively about her multiracial roots, and I am delighted to share her stories, insights, and family photos here on Renegade South. Because of the towering historical presence of Newt Knight, we’ve heard much about the children he fathered with former slaves Rachel and George Ann Knight, but very little about the multiracial families with which the descendants of these two women blended their family lines.

I’ve learned so much from reading Yvonne’s essays and notes. For example, I learned that Davis Knight, famous because of his 1948 miscegenation trial, was descended not only from Newt and Rachel Knight, but also from Martha Ann Ainsworth through his mother, Addie. Martha Ann was the slave of Sampson “Jeff” Ainsworth and also the mother of several of his children.

Martha Ann and Jeff Ainsworth’s daughter, Lucy Jane, forged the most extensive link between the Ainsworths, Smiths, and Knights.  According to Yvonne, after the war “Lucy married a nearly white man named Warren Edward Smith, who was born in Smith County to a mulatto slave named Jennie McGill.” Warren deserted Lucy around 1882, leaving her to raise their children alone.

Historically, impoverished women have been forced to look to men as protectors and providers. It was no different for Lucy, who also suffered the disability of race in segregated Mississippi (despite her white appearance). Writes Yvonne: “left with five children to support, Lucy began a relationship with Calhoun Anderson, a white man. . . . Anderson was the father of two of Lucy’s children, Quillie Calvin and Necia Abigail. “

As they reached adulthood, Lucy’s children intermarried extensively with the children of Newt and Rachel. According to Yvonne, “Lucy’s son Louis married Ollie Jane, daughter of Jeffrey Early Knight [son of Rachel] and Martha [Mollie] Knight, Newton Knight’s white daughter.” Her daughter, Mary Florence Magdaline (Maggie), married John Madison (Hinchie), Newt and Rachel’s son. Yvonne further notes that Newt and George Ann Knight also had a son together, John Howard, who married Lucy’s daughter, Candace Martha Jane. To top it all off, at the age of 38, Lucy Ainsworth Smith herself married a Knight: Floyd, another of Newt and Rachel’s sons, further entwining the Ainsworth, Smith, and Knight family networks.

Lucy's sons: standing, l to r: Wilder Knight & Warren Smith. Sitting l to r: Louis Smith & Quillie Anderson

Lucy’s sons: standing, l to r: Wilder Knight & Warren Smith. Sitting l to r: Louis Smith & Quillie Anderson

What makes Yvonne’s stories so valuable is that she LISTENED when her elders went on about the past—she particularly listened to her grandmother, Jerolee Smith. But she also asked questions of them, to the point that she was sometimes told to quit “digging.” Yvonne has also conducted her own research in federal manuscript censuses, court records, and old family manuscripts and photographs. Most important of all, she wrote down what she learned.

Present-day descendants of Lucy Jane Ainsworth: l to r, Yvonne Bivins, Flo Wyatt, Vicki Knight, Anita Williams

Present-day descendants of Lucy Jane Ainsworth: l to r, Yvonne Bivins, Flo Wyatt,  Anita Williams, Vicki Knight

There is much more to be learned about this network of families, and I’ve incorporated some of Yvonne’s research into chapter six of The Long Shadow of the Civil War. What I hope is that Yvonne will one day soon publish her own full-fledged history of the Ainsworth-Smith-Knight connections.

Vikki Bynum

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