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Posts Tagged ‘rachel knight’

Would you like to know the true  story of the Free State of Jones, but don’t have time to read the long version? Good news! The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War (published 2001) has just been released by the University of North Carolina Press as part of its new “e-Book Shorts” series.  This excerpted digital version contains the original book’s introduction, epilogue, and two Civil War chapters.  Entitled Rebels Against Confederate Mississippi, it’s available from Amazon’s Kindle store for $4.99 (currently on sale for $3.99). For those who prefer the long version, it too is available from Kindle.

For details, or to order, click here.

Between late 1863 and mid-1864, an armed band of Confederate deserters battled Confederate cavalry in the Piney Woods region of Jones County, Mississippi. Calling themselves the Knight Company after their captain, Newton Knight, and aided by women, slaves, and children who spied on the Confederacy and provided food and shelter, they set up headquarters in the swamps of the Leaf River. There, legend has it, they declared the Free State of Jones.

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Littlefield Lecture poster

The Littlefield Lectures, UT Austin

I’m delighted to announce that I’ll be delivering this year’s Littlefield Lectures for the History Department of the University of Texas, Austin.  The lectures are based on research from my last two books, The Free State of Jones, and The Long Shadow of the Civil War:
“The Free State of Jones: Community, Race, and Kinship in Civil War Mississippi,” March 6, 4-6 p.m., Avaya Auditorium, ACE 2.302

“Communities at War”: Men, Women, and the Legacies of Anti-Confederate Dissent,” March 7, 4-6 p.m., Avaya Auditorium, ACE 2.302

If you’re in the area, I hope to see you there!

Vikki Bynum

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Free State of Jones, by Victoria Bynum

Gregg and I are excited to be heading off to Kansas City on January 26, where I’ll be a featured speaker for the 2012 Richard D. McKinzie Symposium.

The McKinzie Symposium will take place Thursday, January 26 – Friday, January 27, 2012, and will explore the topic, “Confederate Disunion: The War Beyond the Battlefield”

On  Thursday at 6:30 pm, Dr. Stephanie McCurry will present the keynote address, “Confederate Reckoning: The Politics of the ‘Homefront’ in the Civil War South.” Two plenary sessions, including my own, follow on Friday:

9 am–“Recalculating the Price of Freedom: Women and the Civil War”
Dr. Thavolia Glymph

10 am–“The Free State of Jones: Community, Race, and Kinship in Civil War Mississippi”
Dr. Victoria Bynum

For complete information on the symposium, including registration instructions, click here:

McKinzie-Program-2012

A Brief History of the McKinzie Symposium:

This year marks the 17th year of the Richard D. McKinzie Annual Research Symposium. The symposium is co-sponsored by the UMKC College of Arts and Sciences, the Kansas City Public Library, and the Organization of American Historians, the largest professional body of American historians in the country. Thanks to the generous support of the Bernardin Haskell Program, the McKinzie Symposium has grown into a highly anticipated event for our campus. The symposium offers a special opportunity for the participating faculty in the High School College Program—as well as UMKC faculty, students, and the broader Kansas City community—to interact with some of the nation’s leading scholars of American history and culture

If you’re in the area, I hope to see you there!

Vikki Bynum

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 Mixed Chicks Chat

Earlier this year, on February 16, I announced my upcoming interview on the award-winning show, Mixed Chicks Chat. This live weekly show, launched by co-producers and co-hosts Fanshen Cox and Heidi Durrow in 2007, addresses different aspects of mixed-race experience each week with guest authors, community leaders, and everyday people who share their own stories. So, I was excited to be a part of the show! Sadly, however, the interview scheduled to take place on Wednesday, March 2, 2011, had to be cancelled because of technical difficulties.

I’m happy to report that Fanshen Cox invited me once again to be a guest on the show, and this time things went beautifully. On August 10, I had a great time discussing Mississippi’s Newt, Rachel, and the “White Negro” Knight community with Fanshen and co-host Jennifer Frappier. I also enjoyed fielding questions from members of the audience, one of whom was Steven Riley from Mixed Race Studies: Scholarly Perspectives on the Mixed Race Experience.

If you’re not familiar with this program, I urge you to visit the Mixed Chicks site. If you find Renegade South’s posts about the history of mixed-race families interesting, you will surely find the “Mixed Chicks” interviews and dialogues fascinating!  

You may listen to interviews on Mixed Chick Chats by visiting Talkshoe.com and signing up as a listener.

My compliments to the hosts, and my thanks to them for rescheduling the interview. 

Vikki Bynum

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Report:

I just returned from a wonderful visit to Leiden University in the Netherlands, where I spoke generally about Civil War Southern Unionists and specifically about The Free State of Jones as part of that university’s yearly American Studies Lecture Series. In commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, this year’s theme was “The American Civil War After 150 Years: An Unfinished War?”

I was impressed by the deep interest in the American Civil War displayed by Leiden students and faculty. I’m happy to report there were no arguments between True Believers in either the noble “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy, or the total benevolence of Northern motives and goals in thwarting the South’s secession from the Union. Rather, discussions centered on understanding that many Southerners–white as well as black–opposed secession and the creation of the Confederacy, and that many more turned against the Confederacy as the war dragged on. How common across the South was guerrilla warfare such as that of Jones County, Mississippi?, they wanted to know. Who was Newt Knight? This question led to a discussion about the deep need displayed by Civil War partisans to turn Newt into either a murderous traitor to “The South,” or, conversely, into an abolitionist whose racial views anticipated the modern Civil Rights Movement.

We probably will never know the full story of Newt Knight’s political or racial views, but we do know that no Solid South existed either before, during, or after the Civil War. And, yes, we know that slavery played a crucial role in convincing key Southern leaders to push for secession, even though most Northerners, including Abraham Lincoln, were not abolitionists bent on fighting a war for the liberty of African Americans.

They didn’t have to be abolitionists. It was enough that the newly-elected Republican president was dedicated to limiting slavery’s expansion into the nation’s western territories. Slaveholders’ equal dedication to the expansion of slavery as essential to the institution’s survival eventually led to the Civil War–a war that ironically resulted in what slaveholders most feared–the abolition of slavery. 

Not only did a good many white Southerners oppose secession, but the disastrous course of that war eventually demoralized a good many more who originally believed they were fighting for liberty and honor, but increasingly saw a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”

There was special interest among the Leiden audience in the mixed-race community that grew out of Newt Knight’s wartime collaboration with Rachel Knight, the former slave of his grandfather, Jackie Knight. Many of the questions centered on issues of racial identity and the historical importance–and limits–of the “one drop rule” in determining such identities. Members of the audience were fascinated by the variety of racial identities assumed by, as well as imposed upon, descendants of Newt Knight, his white wife Serena, and the two mixed-race women–Rachel Knight and her daughter George Ann–by whom he had children.  Historically, they understood, race is a social, political, and legal construction rather than a biologically rational system. 

Announcement:

I recently discussed the above themes (and more) in regard to my latest book, The Long Shadow of the Civil Warin an interview with the Peabody Award-winning show, “To the Best of Our Knowledge,” produced by Wisconsin Public Radio and distributed by Public Radio International (PRI). The interview, part of NPR’s “Remembering the Civil War” series, was arranged by Erin Clune and conducted by Anne Strainchamps. It will air on various NPR affiliates throughout the nation tomorrow, on Sunday, May 8, and will also be podcast:

http://www.wpr.org/book/110508b.cfm

FYI, here’s a list of NPR affiliates that broadcast “To the Best of Our Knowledge”:

http://tunein.com/radio/options/To-the-Best-of-our-Knowledge-p498/

Vikki Bynum, Moderator

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Note from Moderator: Jonathan Odell has given me permission to reprint the following essay.  For more of Jon’s creative writings, visit him at http://jon-odell.com/




Rachel Knight: Slave, White Man’s Mistress and Mother to a Movement”

by Jonathan Odell


Rachel’s Children

I can’t help but think of the Old Testament Abraham when I hear stories about Newt Knight. Both men sired children by a wife and a slave. In Newt’s case it was Serena and Rachel. With Abraham, Sara and Hagar. According to religious texts, one of these women went on to become the matriarch of God’s chosen people. Exactly which one depends on what you happen to be reading, your Bible or your Koran. Jews and Christians claim the wife Sarah and Muslims claim the handmaiden Hagar. Several Crusades were launched trying to settle thatmatter.

In Jones County, there’s always been a fierce crusade of competing stories about Rachel, the white account versus the black account. Like most stories, the white interpretation gets written down and called history, while the black story gets handed down by word-of-mouth and called folklore.

Growing up as a white boy, I swore by Ethel Knight’s written-down version. According to her, Rachel was a light-skinned temptress with blue-green eyes and flowing chestnut hair. But evil as the day is long. Ethel alternately calls her a vixen, a witch, a conjure woman, a murderer and a strumpet.

Serena, Newt’s white wife, is but an innocent captive, forced a gunpoint to live in this den of iniquity, and like Newt, powerless as Rachel’s sorcery wrecked and degraded their family.

As a child of Jim Crow, this narrative satisfied my budding sensibilities about race. In my white-bubble world, there could never be any possibility of true love or affection between a white man and a black woman. Nor would any white man sire children by a black woman and then choose to live amongst his mixed-race offspring. Unless of course, the black woman had either seduced him unmercifully or mysteriously conjured him, or both. It just wasn’t possible that he actually loved her, or her children.

Imagine my surprise when I heard, as they say, “the rest of the story.” It was as shocking as sitting down in church and listening to the preacher get up and declare from the pulpit that Abraham’s birthright went to Hagar’s kid Ishmael, instead of Sarah’s son, Isaac, and it was we Christians who were the infidels!  Boy would that turn some peoples world upside down!

I felt something akin to this when I listened to a gathering of Rachel’s descendents tell me their side of things.  First of all Rachel wasn’t some immoral viper. To Pat and Flo and Peggy, Rachel was a role model—a strong black woman with no legitimate authority in a racist society, doing what needed to be done for her children, regardless of the cost to herself. Somebody you would like your daughter to grow up like.

“Was she the green-eyed slave with long flowing hair like Ethel said?” I asked.

“She was what we called a Guinea Negro,” answered Yvonne, another of Rachael’s great-grandchildren. “That means she was dark, not light-skinned like Ethel writes. She had course hair and she was short. Similar to Australian aborigines. She was mixed, but not white-looking.”

It was beginning to sound like a white conspiracy against Rachel, but then Yvonne let me in on a little secret. Whites weren’t the only ones who liked the story of Rachel appearing white. “That’s the way some of my cousins who pass for white want her to be depicted. They deny that they had any black in them so they don’t want Rachel to be black, either.”

“That was partially Newt’s fault,” Yvonne continued. “My mother said that Newt was trying to cleanse the black out of Rachel’s children. Because of the one-drop rule, he wanted to get rid of that drop of black blood. That’s why he married his white children to each other black children.” Yvonne grins at her relatives around the table. “As for me, I proudly claim my one drop!”

There is a burst of laughter. All these women agree on that point.

“And how about the part about being Rachel being a vixen and a witch?” I asked.

“It was always assumed that the slave was to blame for the husband’s indiscretions,” Yvonne explained. “She had to have some special power over him. It couldn’t be that he cared for her.”

Yvonne was right. That’s what I was always told. Slave owners were mostly noble men and succumbed only when mightily tempted. Why else would Newt isolate himself from his community and willingly be labeled as a deviate if he weren’t bewitched?

“In my family we believe that Newt really loved Rachel,” Pat said.

“It was not a casual relationship,” Yvonne added. “And he loved all of his children. My understanding is that they were all raised up on the same land. They all lived together, played together, ate together. My grandmother was Newt’s granddaughter, said she didn’t know she had a drop of black blood until she was all raised up.”

“I guess you can’t believe everything you read,” I said. “How do the black Knights feel about Ethel’s book?”

“My grandfather was Warren Smith,” Yvonne said, “He was Rachel’s grandson and he said that Ethel’s book was a pack of lies.  Said she was smart enough to create an entertaining account of Newt and Rachel’s relationship. But unfortunately,” Yvonne concluded, “white people tend to believe every word.”

Yvonne was right. I sure did. But now I’m not sure what to think. Rachel’s people have got me thoroughly confused. That’s what happens when folks start messing with the stories you were raised on.

So it comes down to that old, nagging question once more—which story is true? The truth is…I don’t know. I think they all might be. The way a story shapes a person is the truest thing there is.

The Italians say it better: All stories are true. Some even happened.

Gregory “Butch” Knight

There is probably no sadder task in the world than trying to get to know your father after he has died. Yet Butch Knight told me that was something he was determined to do.

I first met Butch at a gathering of the Knights who proudly trace their roots back to the ex-slave Rachel and the infamous Newt. Some of their descendants are called “black Knights”. Some are called “white black Knights”, because of their Caucasian features. Their history is complex. They are caught right in the crosshairs of our absurd national obsession with color.

For instance, Butch’s father, Hayston Knight, was the great-grandson of Newt and Rachel Knight. Butch showed me a photo of his father. There was nothing in the picture that would cause me to think this man black. His features were of a light-skinned, fine-boned white man. Butch said many of the Knights with his father’s appearance were encouraged to leave the area so they could pass for white, and raise their children as white. Of course they could never return home, lest their children discover their ancestry. The break had to be complete. Those who stayed were pressured into choosing marriage partners with their shade of pigmentation or lighter. Never darker.

“Not my father,” Butch recalled. “He said that foolishness was going to stop with him. He said he wanted to marry the blackest woman he could find. He was going to break the cycle.”

Butch said his father never denied who he was. On his first day in the army, Hayston’s sergeant ordered all the whites in one line and all the blacks in another. When Hayston placed himself with the other black soldiers, the sergeant shouted, “Didn’t you hear me? I said, only the n______’s over there!”

Hayston said defiantly, “Well, I guess I’m in the right place because I’m a n______!”

In the 1950’s Hayston got a job with a local grocery wholesaler and because of his intelligence and his white appearance was given significant responsibility in managing the operation. He was also put in charge of breaking in the new white trainees, who were inevitably promoted over Hayston. The family believed that the stress and the humiliation sent him to an early grave.

“My daddy wasn’t proud. He could have passed,” Butch says. “I wanted to write about my father. How he had to live in the black world and work in the white world.”

Butch admits being ashamed of his father while he was alive, seeing one white man after the other promoted over him. And his father never talked back.

“I admire him now,” Butch admits, with tears in his eyes. “He did it for us, his children. So he could support his family.”

“I’m starting to understand the struggle he had to go through,” Butch continued, “Not white enough to be accepted by whites. And too white to be accepted by blacks.”

I encouraged Butch to write about his father, as I’m doing with my dad after losing him last year to cancer. Sometimes it’s a lonely undertaking, with many ghosts, especially those missed moments when feelings went forever unspoken. But writing it down seems to help soothe the grief.

I didn’t need to encourage him. Butch had already begun the research. He even went so far as to sit down with Ethel Knight, the author of Echo of the Black Horn, to see what he could learn from her about his father.

“What did you think about her book?” I asked.

“Lies,” he said, referring to the way she denied the black descendants of Newt Knight in her book. “But when I went to see her, she treated me like long lost kin. It was very strange.”

I offered to work with Butch on his father’s biography. I could tell he was feeling some sense of urgency. Then he explained. Butch’s father died when he was 58. “An aneurism. Runs in family,” Butch said. “Comes from both sides.” Butch went on to say that this year, he had turned 58.  “I’m shaking in my boots.” His sisters who were present that day assured Butch that wouldn’t be the case for him. Butch didn’t appear comforted. I got the sense that he thought he might have waited until it was too late to discover the truth about his father.

Butch and I agreed to meet the next time I was in Mississippi and continue our discussion about his dad.  I put together a list of questions for Butch and was excited about dedicating a chapter in my upcoming book about his search for his father. When I called from Minnesota to arrange a meeting, his sister answered the phone.

“Butch died last month,” she said. “He collapsed while he was out mowing his yard.”

I wasn’t sure why that hit me so hard. In a way, it was like losing my father all over again. Perhaps I had hoped that by helping Butch discover his dad, in the process, I could also become closer to mine.
But that’s not to be. Perhaps, in the end, that is something a person can do only for himself. And maybe, looking for our fathers is like looking for our reflection in a mirror that has gone dim. We can never get close enough to make it out.

I’ll miss my friend, and I hope that where he is now, the reflection he gazes upon is bright and true, and he has found the answers was searching for.

For more columns on the Knights, white and black, see:

Newt Knight: Emperor Of The Free State Of Jones

White Negro Communities: Too White To Be Black And Too Black To Be White

By Jon Odell

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My thanks to historian Michael Perman of the University of Illinois at Chicago for his thoughtful review of Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies in the Summer 2010 issue of Civil War Book Review:

 

http://www.lib.lsu.edu/civilwarbookreview/index.php?q=3655&field=ID&browse=yes&record=full&searching=yes&Submit=Search

Vikki Bynum

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