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Posts Tagged ‘one drop rule’

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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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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Is THIS Rachel Knight?

Is THIS Rachel Knight?

At long last we return to the question of whether a photograph of Rachel Knight exists. (see my earlier post,  “Rachel Knight: Does a Picture of Her Exist?”).  I am pleased to now be in touch with Yvonne Bivins, who has been researching the Ainsworth/Smith/Knight family lines for many years.

Yvonne believes that the woman identified as Rachel on the cover of my book, The Free State of Jones, is probably Anna Knight, daughter of Georgeanne Knight and granddaughter of Rachel. Based on her grandfather’s description of Rachel, she believes the woman in the above photo is much more likely to be Rachel. Grandfather Warren Smith, she writes, “described Rachel as a ‘Guinea Negro,’ meaning she was racially mixed but did not look white nor was she light-skinned, but with “nice hair” not kinky and shoulder length.”

Further descriptions by Warren Smith of Rachel’s appearance led Yvonne to conclude that Rachel’s daughter, Martha Ann Knight, most resembled her.  Photographs do exist of Martha Ann, who, Yvonne notes, looked very much like an “Australian Aborigine.”  Because the woman in the above photo sharply resembles Martha Ann, Yvonne hypothesizes that this just may be a photo of Rachel.

Yvonne makes another important point: “My grandfather,” she states, “said that Rachel’s children did not appear as white as most would believe. They had complexions that ranged from dark olive to light brown, most with coarse black hair with a few red-heads in the mixture. The infusion of fair-skin came from the Ainsworths and not the Knights.”

This is all very fascinating, and I’m sure we haven’t yet heard the final word on Rachel Knight and her progeny.  Thank you, Yvonne, for sharing your research and perspective with us.

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A few days ago, the post “Life and Death of Davis Knight,” received a visit and comment from Deborah Jiang Stein. Noting that she has her own blog, I decided to check it out. I so liked what I read that I added her to the Renegade South blogroll.

I want especially to encourage those interested in multiracial issues to visit Deborah’s site (she also posts regularly on the Huffington Post). You’ll find her essays variously funny and sad, lighthearted and thought-provoking–a wonderful combination of irreverent thoughts and nurturing insights from a woman fully engaged with life.

Visit Musings for Mutts at  http://www.muttslikeme.wordpress.com

See also: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/deborah-jiang-stein

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By Vikki Bynum

In 1998, I published an article on Davis Knight’s miscegenation trial in The Journal of Southern History (Vol. LXIV, No. 2, May 1998). Subsequently, I included his story in my book The Free State of Jones (2001). Davis, the great-grandson of Newt and Serena Knight, was also the great-grandson of Rachel Knight, a former slave of Newt’s grandfather. Because of his slave ancestor, Davis was convicted in 1948 for having crossed the color line when he married Junie Lee Spradley, a white woman.

The case is significant because the Mississippi State Supreme Court remanded Davis’s case in 1949 on grounds that the lower court did not prove that Davis had 1/8th or more African ancestry. Legally, regardless of custom, the “one drop rule” did not determine one’s racial identity. Davis thus avoided going to prison for having married across the color line (a crime in several states until 1967). For the rest of his life, he lived as a white man.

It turned out, however, that the rest of Davis’s life would be quite short, as was the marriage that he suffered to defend in court. Some years ago, Ken Welch of Soso, MS, provided me copies of Davis’s divorce and death records. They show that in 1954, five years after his Supreme Court victory, Davis sued Junie Lee for divorce on grounds she had abandoned their home in 1951. The couple had no children, and Davis claimed that Junie Lee had given birth to another man’s child during their separation. The marriage was officially dissolved on July 20, 1954.

Soon after, Davis moved to Channelview, Texas (near Houston), where in 1959 he would lose his life in a fishing accident. Before that tragic day, Davis married for a second time, to Evelyn (Evie) Wilburn, and worked as a painter’s helper for Olin Mathieson Chemical Corporation. When I interviewed Ethel Knight (author of Echo of the Black Horn) in 1992, she told me that Davis had abandoned Junie Lee for a rich, white, older woman who lived in Texas. If Davis’s divorce testimony is to be believed, however, it was Junie Lee who left him. And while his new wife, Evie, was fourteen years older than him, and white, I have found no evidence that she was rich. Evie had been twice divorced, and had two sons, Joel G. Hill, age 31, and James W. McDonald, 24, who were closer in age than she to her new husband.

On the morning Davis Knight died, he had just embarked on a fishing trip at the Sheldon Reservoir with his stepson, Joel. According to Joel, he first waded and floated out to a small island where the two men intended to fish. Davis followed, carrying his fishing rod and wearing a life preserver. As he entered into deeper water, the preserver slipped upward and he was momentarily submerged, causing him to panic and thrash about. Several fisherman came to his aid, but by then Davis had been under the water for 3 to 5 minutes and could not be revived. An autopsy ruled his death an accidental drowning.

Davis’s Texas death certificate described him as a 34-year-old white man. Although the Mississippi Supreme Court had granted him the same status, the “one drop rule” of race meant that most people who knew his roots would never accept him as white. So, like many kinfolk before him, Davis escaped the dangers and degradation of being labeled a “black” man by leaving the state. For him, that escape proved all too brief.

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Many people, perhaps most, think of “race” as an objective reality. Historically, however, racial categorization has been unstable, contradictory, and arbitrary. Consider the term “passing.” Most of us immediately picture a light-skinned person who is “hiding” their African ancestry. Many would go further and accuse that person of denying their “real” racial identity. Yet few people would accuse a dark-skinned person who has an Anglo ancestor of trying to pass for “black,” and thereby denying their “true” Anglo roots!

So why is a white person with an African ancestor presumed to be “really” black? In fact, in this day of DNA testing, it’s become increasingly clear that many more white-identified people have a “drop” or two of African ancestry than most ever imagined. Are lots of white folks (or are they black?) “passing,” then, without even knowing it?

Having said all that, I’d like to provide some historical examples of the shifting and arbitrary nature of racial categorization. Those familiar with Newt Knight already know about the 1948 miscegenation trial of his great-grandson, Davis Knight. According to the “one drop rule” of race, Davis was a black man by virtue of having a multiracial great-grandmother (Rachel Knight). Yet, social custom and the law differed. One was legally “white” in Mississippi if one had one-eighth or less African ancestry, and Davis eventually went free on that legal ground.

Despite Davis Knight’s legal victory, custom (and often the law) at times went even further than applying the “one drop rule.” After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation of the races was legal (Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896), census enumerators in the segregated South of 1900 were instructed to list people’s race as either “black” or “white”; there were to be no “in-between” designations. Some enumerators went even further than that. To reinforce the image of a racially-segregated society, they categorized many formerly white-identified people as “black” simply because they lived in multiracial neighborhoods. Hence, Newt and Serena Knight, and their children who lived (and married) among Rachel and her children, were listed as “black” in the 1900 federal manuscript census.

Similar contradictions of racial identification may be found throughout Southern court records as segregation ordinances were written into law. An example of one absurd, yet utterly serious, effort to determine whether an individual was “white” or “black” (which I pieced together from North Carolina state and federal records) follows:

In 1884, Mary Ann McQueen, a young white woman about 33 years old, was suspected of having “black” blood. So strong were these suspicions that her mother, who had always been accepted as white, swore out a deed in the Montgomery County Court that “solemnly” proclaimed her daughter to be “purely white and clear of an African blood whatsoever.” But why did suspicions about the “purity” of Mary Ann McQueen’s “blood” arise in the first place?

It all began before the Civil War, when Mary Ann’s mother, Diza Ann, ended her marriage to Mary Ann’s father, Calvin McQueen. Almost immediately afterward, she married Wilson Williams (aka Wilson Wright). By 1861, when the Civil War began, Diza had given birth to four more children. Meanwhile, Mary Ann’s father, Calvin, enlisted in the Confederate Army in February 1862 and marched off to war. Barely five months later, in July 1862, he was dead from wounds suffered in the battle of Mechanicsville, Virginia. Calvin had lived and died as a white man.

The same was not true, however, of Diza’s second husband, Wilson Williams, who was listed as a “mulatto” by census enumerators. This meant that Mary Ann McQueen grew up in a multiracial household with a stepfather and several siblings all classified as mulattos. By 1884, as segregation expanded and lines of race correspondingly hardened, many folks wondered how this white woman could have mixed-race kinfolk without being mixed herself.

With racially discriminatory laws a fundamental part of segregation, Mary Ann had a lot to lose in civil rights, as well as social standing, if she could not rid herself of the “one drop” taint. Perhaps because she lived in a small community with a long memory, her mother’s sworn statement, which reminded the court that Calvin McQueen and not Wilson Williams was Mary Ann’s biological father, seems to have won Mary Ann her whiteness, at least legally. By 1900, the federal manuscript census for Montgomery County, N.C., listed a Mary McQueen, born 1851, as “white.”

That does not mean however, that Mary Ann’s social status was restored. If this is our Mary Ann, she apparently never married, despite having given birth to a son, also listed as white. Were Mary Ann’s chances at marriage to a white man compromised by her mother’s interracial marriage? In the era of segregation, most certainly they were.

Today, most scientists agree that there is no genetic basis for the idea of humans as separate “races,” or subspecies. But, as we see in the case of Mary Ann McQueen and the more recent trial of Davis Knight, societal beliefs about race were written into law and political policy, and reflected historical struggles of power over slavery, segregation, and civil rights.

NOTE:  The stories of Davis Knight and Mary Ann McQueen are discussed in my new book, The Long Shadow of the Civil War.

Vikki Bynum

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