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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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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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