Posts Tagged ‘jones county’

There are many participants in the Free State of Jones that I wish I knew more about. One of them is Serena Knight, the white wife of Newt Knight. 

Serena is often forgotten in the rush to spotlight Newt’s interracial relationship with Rachel.  And, yet, Serena appears central to Newt’s decision to desert the Confederate Army; she was the mother of nine of his children. And she still lived with him in 1880, long after Rachel had begun to give birth to children believed to be fathered by her husband.

There was nothing unusual about Southern white men having sexual relations with black women, either forced or consensual, right under their wives’ noses, particularly before slavery was abolished. But Newt and Serena Knight’s post-Reconstruction interracial homestead was quite unusual. In 1878, two of their children, Matt and Mollie, married two of Rachel’s children, Fannie and Jeffrey. That made three interracial Knight unions that lived on the same land, although not in the same households. By 1880, these Knights constituted an interracial community that continued to grow over the years.

Interestingly, Serena left Newt’s household sometime between 1880 and 1900, yet did not vacate the Knight community even after several of her grown children married white partners and left.  Instead, she lived with her daughter Mollie and son-in-law Jeffrey (Rachel’s son) until her daughter’s death around 1917. Photographs indicate that even after Mollie’s death, Serena remained close to Jeffrey and her grandchildren. They were, after all, family.  Serena’s relationships over the years clearly suggest that she, as well as Newt, broke the social (if not sexual) rules of southern segregationist society.

But what about Serena and Newt’s personal relationship? Rachel died in 1889; what effect did her death have on them, particularly since Newt apparently fathered two children (Grace and Lessie) with Rachel’s daughter, Georgeanne, within five years of Rachel’s death?  Was that the final straw for Serena, the moment when she left their household forever?

Newt and Rachel may indeed have shared a great love for one another, as many believe. If so, it was a love fraught with consequences for others over the years: Newt’s white son Tom never got over the shame associated with his father and siblings crossing the color line; Newt’s multiracial great-grandson, Davis, was convicted of miscegenation in 1948 for marrying a white woman (the conviction was overturned); Newt’s grand-niece, Ethel Knight, published The Echo of the Black Horn in 1951 to dispel any notion that her branch of the family approved of either the Knight Company or Newt’s interracial relations.

But what about Serena? We probably know the least about the feelings of the wife who shared Newt’s household for decades, and remained in the Knight community long after she had left her philandering husband.

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I wrote the book Free State of Jones for professional and personal reasons. As both a historian and an individual, I am on the hunt for ordinary people who commit extraordinary acts. I am especially drawn to those who confront systems of power in unlikely ways alongside unlikely allies. In Civil War Jones County, Mississippi, deep in the so-called “solid” South, some 100 ordinary white farmers banded together to fight against the Confederate Army (a few of my distant kin were among them). Doing so earned them the label of outlaws. But outlaw means different things to different people. To pro-Confederate Mississippians, these were cowardly deserters. The core members of the Knight band, however, viewed themselves as principled Unionists. 

In my book, I struggled against writing a “Great Man” history; I did not want to portray Newt Knight as the “Rambo” of Jones County dissent. Rather, I dug deep into historical records from NC, SC, GA, and MS, to uncover the cultural and class roots of those families who contributed the greatest number of participants in the Jones County uprising. I emphasized how earlier historical events–for example, the American Revolution and the opening of the Southwestern frontier–shaped attitudes toward authority and government among these plain folks of the Old South.

The Civil War constituted a crisis of authority for many such Southerners, especially those who lived outside the plantation belt. Newt Knight did not singlehandedly create the Knight band, although he became its charismatic leader. By his own admission, the Civil War transformed his life and his character. Would Newt have developed an open relationship with his grandfather’s former slave, Rachel, one that led to creation of a mixed-race community that thrives today, had the war not erupted? Would he have become a New South Republican after the war? Like all important figures of history, Newt was as much shaped by his times as he in turn shaped them.  I hope that you are as fascinated by the history of this renegade county as I am. (On Newt Knight, see also “Did Jones County Secede From the Confederacy?”

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