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Note from Renegade South: Vernon F. Dahmer, a well known Mississippi civil rights worker, was murdered in 1966 by white supremacists connected to the Ku Klux Klan. Before the night of January 10, 1966, when the Dahmer grocery store and home were firebombed, Vernon had been leading voter registration drives in his community. To facilitate that effort, he had recently placed a voter registration book in the grocery store he owned.

Vikki Bynum, Moderator

Dahmer Grocery Store

Vernon Dahmer's grocery store, located on Monroe Road, 3.5 miles from the Jones County line. Photo courtesy of Vernon Dahmer, Jr.

Vernon Dahmer, Western Union Telegram

Telegram from President and Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson expressing sympathy for the family of Vernon Dahmer. Courtesy of Vernon Dahmer, Jr.

It took many years and five court trials to convict KKK Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers in 1998 of having ordered the murder of Vernon Dahmer. Today, Dahmer is revered for his courageous work on behalf of black civil rights. In honor of his memory, both a street and memorial park in Hattiesburg bear his name.

In the essay that follows, Dahmer’s grandniece, Wilmer Watts Backstrom, and Yvonne Bivins, a member of his extended family of Smiths, Ainsworths, and Knights, enrich our understanding by telling the story of his family roots in southern Mississippi. Dahmer’s multiracial heritage included white, black, and Indian ancestors. The narrative begins with the story of his grandmother, Laura Barnes.

 

The Family Origins of Vernon F. Dahmer, Mississippi Civil Rights Activist

By Wilmer Watts Backstrom and Yvonne Bivins

Laura Barnes was born in Jones County, MS in October 1854. According to her daughter, Roxanne Craft, “she was given to a black family to raise because she was born out of wedlock to a white girl.”

The 1870 census for Twp 9 in NE Jones County, Mississippi, shows that fifteen-year-old Laura was living in the household of Ann Barnes, a 55-year-old mulatto woman born in Mississippi whose occupation was housekeeper. A young mulatto boy, Augustus, age 12, also lived in the home.  Living next door to the Barnes family were Andrew and Annice (Brumfield) Dahmer.

Laura Barnes

Laura Barnes, grandmother of Vernon Dahmer, Sr., courtesy of Vernon Dahmer, Jr.

Andrew Dahmer was born on 17 February 1836 in Hesse Darmstadt, Germany. After a series of crop failures in the 1840′s, emigration was regarded by many middle class German families as the only remedy against impoverishment in Bavaria, one of the most densely populated areas of Germany. Andrew, James, John, Peter and Henry Dahmer took the opportunity to leave the country for opportunities abroad. Andrew arrived in America in 1851. His brother, James, came the following year in 1852.  The brothers first settled in Kirkwood, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, where they worked for a rich merchant named R. N. Bayley (Bailey).  Peter joined them in the United States in 1865.

After the Civil War, Andrew Dahmer and his brothers became traveling salesmen who peddled their wares in Wayne, Jones, and Perry Counties in Mississippi. Andrew soon met and married Annice Brumfield, whose mother, Altamarah Knight Brumfield, was the aunt of Newt Knight.

Andrew and Annice’s neighbor, Laura Barnes, met Andrew’s brother, Peter Dahmer, in the early 1870s. They began a relationship that resulted in the birth of a baby boy in 1872, who Laura named George Washington Dahmer. Peter apparently did not acknowledge his child, and soon moved to Chickasaw County with several brothers, where they farmed and built a mercantile business.

For giving birth out of wedlock, Laura became a “marked woman.” During this period in her life, she operated a boarding house for the railroad and sawmill workers in northeast Covington County and near “Sullivan’s Hollow” in Smith County. The “Hollow” was notorious for its lawlessness and racial bigotry.  Blacks were not welcome there.  Black families that did live there were descendants of Craft and Sullivan slaves.

Laura hired a black man from the hollow named Charlie Craft. Working closely together on her place, they soon fell in love and developed a relationship. This would bring trouble, because although Laura was raised by a mulatto woman and listed as mulatto on census records, whites still considered her off limits to a black man.

Charlie and Laura Barnes Craft

Charlie and Laura Barnes Craft, grandparents of Vernon Dahmer. Photo courtesy of Vernon Dahmer, Jr.

Charlie Craft was born in Smith County, MS, around 1853.  According to family history, he was part Creek Indian and part African, with piercing eyes and coal black straight hair. A former slave of Bryant Craft, Charlie was known as a man who had never run from a fight. Story has it that after a shootout with the infamous Sullivans, he left Smith County, but doubled back to spirit away his siblings. Because newly freed slaves were not welcome in Smith County, they moved to Covington County, where they settled on a ridge south of the Hollow in the Oakohay area. Here, they established a prosperous community called Hopewell.

By 1880, thirty-year-old Charlie and twenty-eight-year old Laura lived in the Oakohay District.  Four children lived with them: George (Laura’s son by Peter Dahmer), age 10; [Roxanne] Viola, age 7; Bettie, age 5; and Elnathan, age 2. All, including Laura and her son George, were listed as “mulattos” on the 1880 federal manuscript census for Covington County.  Living nearby were Charlie Craft’s mother, Melvina, and several siblings.

One night a local white mob filled with home brew surrounded and attacked their home.  Both Laura and Charlie were excellent shots. Laura shot and killed one of attackers as they tried to protect their children from the mob and, in so doing, the couple had to flee “the ridge.” Laura’s son, George Dahmer, helped them escape.  Upon arriving in the Kelly Settlement, they moved off in the swamps on the Leaf River on the old “William Jenkins Place.”

George Washington Dahmer

George Washington Dahmer, father of Vernon Dahmer, son of Laura Barnes Craft and Peter Dahmer, stepson of Charlie Craft. Photo courtesy of Vernon Dahmer, Jr

The area commonly known as Kelly Settlement was settled by John Kelly, a white man born in North Carolina about 1750.  John and his wife, Amelia, left Hancock County, GA, and arrived in Mississippi in late 1819, settling in Perry County on land located in what is now North Forrest County, just across the Leaf River to the west. By 1820, the Kelly household included John, Amelia, sons Green, 16, and Osborne, 18, Osborne’s wife Joene, and nine slaves. Among these slaves were the parents of Sarah, whose descendants later formed Kelly Settlement. Although the 1820 federal manuscript census for Perry County listed no free blacks living in the household of John and Amelia Kelly, descendants claim that Sarah’s folks were not slaves, but free people who accompanied the Kelly family to Mississippi.

After the Civil War, Sarah’s children began to homestead land, marry, and raise children.  Working together as they had down on John Kelly’s place, they cleared the land to raise crops, cut timber, and hauled it to the Leaf River by oxen to float it down to the Gulf Coast.

Laura Barnes Craft’s son, George Dahmer, moved to the Kelly community ahead of the rest of the Crafts. In 1895, George married Ellen Louvenia Kelly, the daughter of Warren Kelly and Henrietta McComb.  Like his own mother, Laura, Ellen’s mother, Henrietta, was a white child born out of wedlock and given to a black family, the McCombs, to raise.  The McCombs were living on the William Jenkins place when the Crafts arrived in Perry County.  Ellen Kelly’s father, Warren Kelly, was the mulatto son of Green H. Kelly and the grandson of John Kelly, the original white settler of the area. Warren Kelly’s mother was Sarah, the daughter of John Kelly’s slaves (or perhaps free black servants).

Warren Kelly

Warren Kelly, son of Green Kelly and Sarah Kelly, father of Ellen Kelly Dahmer, grandfather of Vernon Dahmer. Photo courtesy of Vernon Dahmer, Jr.

Ellen Louvenia Kelly

Ellen Louvenia Kelly, wife of George Dahmer, mother of Vernon Dahmer, daughter of Warren and Henrietta McComb Kelly. Photo courtesy of Vernon Dahmer, Jr.

It was to this community that Charlie and Laura Barnes Craft fled with the aid of Laura’s son, George Dahmer. According to Wilmer Watts Backstrom (their great granddaughter), Charlie and Laura’s family lived in isolation for many years after being forced out of Covington County; they were prone to violent disagreements and exhibited heated tempers. This family drank heavily with much cursing.  They lived down in the swamps isolated from the community until the children were all grown.  As the children became adults, they gradually moved out of the swamps, married and had families of their own.

Charlie was employed by Green Kelly as a night watchman on the Leaf River. He died before 1910 in Forrest County, MS.  By that year, several of his and Laura’s children were married and living in Kelly Settlement, Beat 2 of Forrest County, MS. Although Laura’s name does not appear on the 1910 Census, she was still alive that year. In 1920, she lived with her oldest child, daughter Roxanne Craft Watts, on the Dixie Highway, Forrest County, MS.  Laura died on 5 June 1922, and is buried in the cemetery at Shady Grove Church in Eastabutchie, Jones County, MS.

Wilmer Watts Backstrom

Wilmer Watts Backstrom, granddaughter of Roxanne Craft Watts, great-granddaughter of Charlie and Laura Barnes Craft. Photo courtesy of Wilmer Watts Backstrom

Laura’s son and Charlie’s stepson, George Dahmer, identified as a black man even though his mother and biological father were white, demonstrating how strongly one’s racial identity is shaped by social experience.

George and Ellen Kelly Dahmer were the parents of Vernon Dahmer. George was known as an honest, hardworking man of outstanding integrity, rich in character rather than worldly goods. Like his father, Vernon worked hard and became a successful storekeeper and commercial farmer. Before his tragic death, he served as music director and Sunday school teacher at the Shady Grove Baptist Church, as well as president of the Forrest County Chapter of the NAACP. He and his wife, Ellie Jewell Davis, were the parents of seven sons and one daughter.

Vernon F. Dahmer, Sr.

Vernon F. Dahmer, Sr. Photo courtesy of Vernon Dahmer, Jr.

Vernon and Ellie Dahmer Family
Vernon Dahmer’s wife and children: seated left to right, George Weldon, Ellie J., Alvin; standing, left to right, Vernon Jr., Betty Ellen, Harold. Photo courtesy of Vernon Dahmer, Jr.

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THE LONG SHADOW OF THE CIVIL WAR, forthcoming, UNC Press, Feb., 2010

I am delighted with the cover designed by University of North Carolina Press for The Long Shadow of the Civil War, forthcoming February 2010. The cover’s shadowy figures and shrouded landscape not only suggest the enduring importance of place, family, and kinship in the South, but also the clandestine, rural world of Civil War Unionists.  Hazy outlines of a makeshift structure put me in mind of the deserter hideouts in the North Carolina Piedmont woods, the swamps of Piney Woods Mississippi, and the Big Thicket forests of East Texas that inspired the essays contained within (to learn more about the book, click here).

My thanks to UNC Press, long known for the high quality of its publications and the highly effective “first impression” quality of it’s book jackets, for showcasing so beautifully The Long Shadow of the Civil War.

Vikki Bynum

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At a  recent two-day booksigning in Jones County, Mississippi, State of Jones co-author, John Stauffer, hurled some serious charges at your Renegade South moderator that must be addressed.  According to the November 13, 2009, online edition of the Laurel Leader Call,  Professor Stauffer attributed several comments to me that I have never made, and others that are gross exaggerations of what I have said in my critiques of their book (to see my 3-part critique of State of Jones, begin here). Perhaps Mr. Stauffer was simply confused; much as been written about his and Sally Jenkins’s book since its June 23, 2009 release. Let me, then, set the record straight.

First, Mr. Stauffer accuses me of refusing to debate him. The truth is, I have never received any personal communications from Mr. Stauffer–ever–much less an invitation to debate him.

He goes on to accuse me of having labeled him and Ms. Jenkins “Yankees and Carpetbaggers.” I have never made any such remark about them.

Nor have I ever said or written, as Stauffer claims, that Newt Knight was “no friend of blacks.” 

I have also never said or written that the writing in State of Jones is “inferior to that of high school students.” As a teacher of college students, however, I did agree with one of my blog commenters that if a student turned in a research paper that was as poorly documented as much of State of Jones is, I would insist that the student rewrite it.

Finally, according to Stauffer, I accused the authors of writing fiction rather than history.  Well, not quite. But I have commented several times in various sections of Renegade South on the manner in which Jenkins and Stauffer play fast and loose with the facts in State of Jones. I gather here those remarks, which I stand by:

1. In regard to State of Jones, there’s nothing wrong with history that reads like a novel, but the research and use of evidence must be done responsibly unless it is categorized as fiction.

 2. All of us love to read exciting stories, but the historian must always be careful not to privilege the excitement of a good story over factual accuracy. It’s fine to speculate, but you must tell the reader when you are doing so. The authors’ weaving in of other people’s histories with Newt Knight’s to suggest what he “might” have thought or done was not done carefully enough to separate fact from conjecture in my view.

3. Yes, I agree that it would be more accurate to define Jenkins and Stauffer’s work as “historical fiction.” But the authors themselves claim that their book is historical scholarship at its finest.

4. If writers are going to mix fact and fiction to build a more exciting story, they need to make that clear to their readers. If what Ms. Jenkins and Professor Stauffer wrote were to be transferred to a TV special, for example, it would have to be termed a “docudrama” to avoid charges of poor research and incorrect suppositions.

In the future, let’s hope that Professor Stauffer sticks to the facts in defending the contents of State of Jones, and that he resists engaging in ad hominem attacks on his critics. 

Vikki Bynum

NOTE: For my response to Professor Stauffer’s subsequent published remarks in the ReView of Jones County, see Confessions of a Texas Gadfly.

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Bumper sticker
“Free State of Jones” bumper sticker, courtesy of DeBoyd Knight

Newt Knight was an important leader in Jones County’s Civil War insurrection, but he did not create Mississippi’s most famous inner civil war. Ed Payne, one of my favorite Mississippi historians, recognizes this better than most, having researched Jones County records for over four years now.

At 12:00 noon, November 18, Ed will address the Kiwanis Club of Laurel at the Laurel Country Club.  The meeting will begin with a luncheon, followed at 12:30 pm by Ed’s thirty-minute presentation, “Civil War Jones County:  Free State or Just Different?”

Those attending, who will include members of the Jones County Genealogical and Historical Organization as well as the Kiwanis Club, can expect a multi-faceted treatment of Jones County’s economic profile, elaborate kinship networks, and the complicated issue of the county’s divided loyalties during the Civil War.

The audience will be treated to the work of a first-class researcher who favors truth over myths, facts over fantasies. Perhaps Ed should have titled his talk, “Beyond Newt Knight.”

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Reading Renegade South, one might gain the impression that all of Jones County supported the Union during the Civil War. That was certainly not the case, although the county did give a substantial majority of its votes–166 out of 255–to John H. Powell, the county’s anti-secession delegate to Mississippi’s secession convention of 1861. The other 89 of those votes went to the pro-secession candidate, 33-year-old John M. Baylis.

John McCormick Baylis was from one of Jones County’s wealthiest families. His father, George Baylis, was a Methodist preacher who, in 1850, owned fifteen slaves. Only two men in the county–William Duckworth and Isaac Anderson–owned more slaves. In 1860, John himself owned seven slaves; his brother Wyatt owned five. 

By 1860, John had been married to Mary Rawls for some five years; the couple’s household included three children, as well as John’s younger siblings, Wyatt and Catherine. Like their father before them, the Baylis brothers were among the wealthiest men in Jones County. John was a physician who owned real estate valued at $11,000, and personal property (which included slaves) valued at $8,300. Wyatt, though only 21 years old, owned real estate worth $4,000, and personal wealth worth $5,000. Catherine, still a teenager, claimed a personal estate of $4,000.

Like everyone else, the Baylis’s lives would soon be transformed by the Civil War. John and Wyatt both joined the 7th battalion Mississippi Infantry, infamous for having contributed a multitude of deserters to the Knight Company, including its notorious captain, Newt Knight.  John and Wyatt Baylis, however, were not among those men; in fact, after the war, John was foremost among those men who opposed Newt Knight’s rise to power. Wyatt, however, was dead by then from wounds sustained at Vicksburg. 

Shortly after enlisting in the army, John Baylis was appointed official surgeon of the 7th battalion, giving him the authority to recommend medical discharges for the men of his unit. In the aftermath of the searing battle of Corinth (1862), he was detached from his unit and remained in Corinth with wounded men from his battalion. By December of that year, he himself was reported sick and absent from duty. Following Vicksburg (and the death of brother Wyatt), John was reported AWOL. He later returned to service, and, on February 8, 1864, was once again assigned to detached service. 

In the immediate aftermath of the war, on July 30, 1865, John expressed his contempt for Knight band renegades in a personal letter to Gov. William L. Sharkey. In the wake of Confederate defeat, several Jones County Unionists, including Newt Knight, received plum appointments from the reconstructed government. Outraged, John declared the new appointees dishonorable men and little more than bandits. He specifically accused the new sheriff, T. J. Huff, of having

united with a band of outlaws who have been engaged in murder and pillage during the war and who have stated frequently that they would not submit to authority of any kind.

He was referring, of course, to the Knight Company. Jones County’s Unionists wielded power for only a brief few years. by 1872, pro-Confederate Democrats had turned back the tide of Reconstruction.

Although the war had impoverished many families, John M. Baylis remained a wealthy man. In a county where few people in 1870 claimed more than a few hundred dollars in property, Baylis’s combined real and personal property was assessed at a whopping $15,000. 

Now, bear with me while I take a bit of a detour with this story. One would logically conclude from all this that the families of John M. Baylis and Newt Knight were miles apart in wealth, ideology, and probably just plain hated each other’s guts.  But not so fast. Remember that Newt’s grandfather, Jackie Knight, was one of the largest slaveholders of neighboring Covington County before the war.

Remember also that Jackie’s son, Jesse Davis, took a different route in life than did Jackie’s son Albert (Newt’s father). Jesse Davis Knight owned slaves (one of whom was Rachel, Newt Knight’s accomplice during the war and lifelong companion); Albert chose not to.

Jesse Davis Knight also married Sarah Elizabeth Baylis, daughter of George Baylis and sister of John M. Baylis, connecting the Knight and Baylis families. Later on down the road, Jesse Davis and Sarah Elizabeth’s son, George Baylis Knight (nicknamed “Clean Knight”), married Elmira Turner, who was kin to Serena Turner, who married Newt Knight.

Well, with all those family connections, you can guess what happened if you don’t already know: the nephew of John M. Baylis ended up becoming one of Capt. Newt Knight’s closest lifelong friends! Clean Neck lived to be a hundred years old, just long enough to defend Newt’s reputation against the charges hurled against him in Ethel Knight’s Echo of the Black Horn. I love it when history defies the odds.

Vikki Bynum

[Records used include federal manuscript population and slave schedules, 1850-1870; Confederate army military records, governors' papers, and interview with Earle Knight]

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When Steve Tatum recently contacted me about his Knight ancestors (see here), I assumed we would quickly locate a link between his branch and that of Jones County. There were two key similarities: the appearance of the name “Newton,” as in Joseph Newton Knight, and the intermarriage of this Knight with Rebecca Jenkins, a woman of mixed ethnic ancestry.

The photo that Steve sent certainly gave me pause; it wasn’t Jones County’s Newt and Rachel, but it was eerily suggestive of them:

Rebecca Jenkins and Joseph Newton Knight

Rebecca Jenkins and Joseph Newton Knight

In fact, however, Yvonne Bivins and I have searched our records and found no links between this Tennessee couple and the multiracial Knights of Jones County, Mississippi (specifically Newton and Rachel Knight). Nevertheless, the similarities are intriguing, and I am posting Steve’s information on his family in hopes that Knight family historians from near and far might recognize a link to their own ancestry and volunteer more information about these particular Knights.

The following are Steve’s own words about his ancestors:

All I know is that when my grandmother, Bradie (Knight) went to Red Boiling Springs (Macon County), Tennessee, she made mention of a relation to her father (Walter Houston Knight). The name she mentioned was “Newt” Knight. I thought that was an odd name until I understood later that it was short for “Newton”; this was long before any research or information was available on the Internet.

“Newt” & Rebecca Knight were the parents of Walter Houston Knight who was my paternal grandmother’s father. I remember standing by my great grandfather (Walter’s) bedside when I was a young boy, we called him “Pappy” Knight. (Walter H. Knight was born in 1880, married to Pennsylvania Piper (Knight) b. 6 Apr 1874 -d. 26 Dec 1939.

My grandmother was so dark skinned with her olive complexion, that we used to question her a lot about it and she would always say that her family was always called “Black Dutch.” I always suspected that she had either Native American or African American ancestry or a combination of the two. Which would all make sense if she is indeed from the Joseph Newton Knight line. She always made mention of her first true love being a “Gypsy” boy, which would have been taboo in a traditional southern “white” family in those days.

 This mix of races could also be the very reason that it is difficult to find any written records as well. I know that many would attempt to conceal any interracial mix in the early days, particularly in the “old south” unless it was to their advantage to be connected with those of a different race, This still stands true today with some of the older folks there.

I know in some cases, for example, African-Americans marrying a Native American would mean they automatically became “free persons of color”, so there was probably much of that going on between the Blacks, Cherokee, Choctaw, etc.

Walter Knight, photo courtesy of Steve Tatum

Walter Houston Knight, photo courtesy of Steve Tatum

If any of  you recognize this line and have additional information or insights to offer, please consider adding a comment!

Vikki

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Amos Deason Home, site of Maj. Amos McLemore's murder, Ellisville, MS. Photo by Victoria Bynum

Amos Deason Home, site of Maj. Amos McLemore's murder, Ellisville, MS. Photo by Victoria Bynum

 There’s an interesting new blog, Across and Back, written by “Red,” a descendant of Amos McLemore who recently made an odyssey to her ancestral home of Jones County, Mississippi, to learn more about the fate of her kinfolk.

The murder of Confederate Major Amos McLemore on October 5, 1863, allegedly by Newt Knight and two of his accomplices, is famous for being the opening shot–literally–for a band of Confederate deserters’ and Unionists’ insurrection against the Confederacy. Major McLemore was visiting the home of Confederate Rep. Amos Deason when intruders entered the home and shot him dead. The reason? McLemore’s efforts to round up local deserters. Shortly thereafter, on October 13, the Knight Company was born, with Newt Knight elected its captain.

That story has been repeated over and over, but the story of what happened to the McLemores after his murder has never been told–hence, Red’s trip back home to try and recover that hazy past. Give Across and Back a visit–you might see someone you know!

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UPDATE, Sept. 26, 2009: Please note below that I have corrected the time of Jon’s presentation from 1:30 pm to 2:30 pm. 

One of my favorite writers, Jonathan Odell, will give a presentation on his various works of fiction and nonfiction on October 5, 2:30 p.m., at Provision Living, 217 Methodist Blvd (across the street from Turtle Creek Mall) in Hattiesburg, MS.

Jonathan Odell

Jonathan Odell

Jon will read from his novel, The View From Delphi, something you won’t want to miss. As I wrote last December in my review of this book, “Odell writes the kind of fiction that makes history come alive. He is a master of dialogue, revealing a keen understanding of human character.” Here’s what others have said:
From an anonymous reviewer: “As an African American. . . . rarely have I read a book by a white author in which there is a black main character who is not rescued by benevolent white characters. . . . Jon Odell has invited us all into an honest dialogue about our race stories, our relationships across race, and ultimately our shared history and future as Americans.” From Randi Madden: “It was truly a ‘slice of life’– something that happens to others, the joy of finding friends in places you didn’t imagine, the harsh reality of what is the South.” From J. Gilbert: “As a native Mississippian, I appreciated the honesty of Odell’s story and the artful way he developed the characters.”
The View From Delphi

The View From Delphi

Jon will also discuss what he has learned about Jones County’s controversial history after interviewing over 100 folks on topics as varied as the legends surrounding Newt Knight, the 1951 execution of Willie McGee, and the life story of Laurel, Mississippi’s own Leontyne Price.

Intrigued? Then head on over to Provision Living on October 5.  Refreshments will be served, and Jon will be happy to sign your books. If you don’t already have a copy of The View From Delphi, you’ll find it at Main Street Books, 210 N Main St., in Hattiesburg. The event is free of charge.

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Another Knight descendent has weighed in on the identities of the two women portrayed in my earlier post,   “Who are These Women.” Dorothy Knight Marsh identifies the woman on the left in that photo as Anna Knight, born 1874, the daughter of George Ann and, possibly, Newt Knight. Dorothy, then, agrees with Yvonne Bivins, who speculates further that the lighter-skinned woman on the right is Candace Smith Knight, also born 1874, the daughter of Lucy Ainsworth Smith and the wife of Anna’s brother, John Howard Knight. It does make sense that sisters-in-law who were the same age would pose together for a photograph. Let’s look at that photo again:

Is this Anna Knight and Candace Smith Knight, sisters-in-law?

Is this Anna Knight and Candace Smith Knight, sisters-in-law?

Now let’s look at the picture below of Yvonne’s  mother, Mary Ann Dodds. Mary Ann was Candace’s niece. Both women were descended from Lucy Ainsworth Smith, and all three, Yvonne tells me, were tiny women, under 100 lbs, who were known to greatly resemble one another. Readers can judge for themselves Mary Ann’s resemblence to the woman on the right, above:

Mary Ann Dodds, niece of Candace Smith Knight

Mary Ann Dodds, niece of Candace Smith Knight

Below is an actual photo (unfortunately very faded) of Candace with her husband, John Howard Knight, and their family.

John Howard Knight family. Candace Knight is on the right, in back row. Collection of Yvonne Bivins.

John Howard Knight family. Candace Knight is on the right, in back row. Collection of Yvonne Bivins.

 

So, what do you think? Look forward to more observations and perhaps even confirmations!

Vikki Bynum

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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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