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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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