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Submitted by Janet Carver, granddaughter of Necia Anderson Smith and Ezra Knight

the Smith-Knight Family, Collection of Janet Carver

the Knight-Smith Family, from collection of Janet Carver

 Photo taken @ 1938.

Back row, left to right:

Olin Calvin, Osie, Dovie, Necia, Ezra, Rose Merry, Delvia, J. Lynn

Front row, left to right:

Ruth, Minerva, Irving, Martha (daughter of Delvia)

 

Thanks to Janet Carver and Yvonne Bivins for identifying family members.

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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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[Many readers have written to tell me how much they enjoy listening to "Jones County Jubilee," over on my Renegade South website. The song is performed by Doctor G and the Mudcats, and was written by Doctor G himself, aka Gregg Andrews. Gregg, who wrote the following post, is a historian as well as singer/songwriter, and has published numerous books and articles, including his own community study, City of Dust: A Cement Company Town in the Land of Tom Sawyer (Univ. of Missouri Press, 1996). I'm proud to note that Gregg is also my husband.]

 

As a singer/songwriter, historian, and teacher, I like to use music as a teaching tool to reach students. I grew up in a cement company town just outside Hannibal, Missouri–Mark Twain’s boyhood home–on the banks of the Mississippi River. My father, who drilled holes and set dynamite charges in the cement plant’s limestone quarries, died at the age of 48, but he taught me to play the guitar shortly before he died. I was 15 years old at the time. The first song I learned from him was Jimmy Rodgers’s Depression-era “Waiting for a Train.” That song about hard times symbolized the cultural legacy he passed on to me–a love of traditional country music and the blues, along with a deep interest in the struggles and culture of working people. A few years later, I discovered the exciting music of Tony Joe White and Credence Clearwater Revival, which added a swamp vibe to the mix of influences on my music.

My song, “Jones County Jubilee,” had its roots in the first trip I made with Vikki to Jones County, Mississippi, on a hot August day in 1992. I was driving our car, trying unsuccessfully  to find a local landmark in the area. When I spotted a guy in his truck out in the field, I pulled over and suggested that Vikki get out of the car and walk over to ask him for directions. He told her to have me pull the car up in the shade and motioned he’d join us there in a few minutes.

The next thing we knew, we were in the truck with Julius Huff, who took us to the Jackie Knight cemetery, where several members of Newton Knight’s band of Unionists were buried after being hanged by Confederate forces. I got my first good feel of Jones County history, folklore, and culture as he got a key to unlock the gate guarding the bumpy old road down into the swamp. I still remember the chills running up and down my spine when I saw the tombstone inscription, “Executed for the courage of their convictions.” Looking back, I think that was the starting point for my song, even though I didn’t write it til years later.

Mass gravestone of Knight kinfolk executed by Col. Robert Lowry, Jackie Knight cemetery

Mass gravestone of Knight kinfolk executed by Col. Robert Lowry, Jackie Knight cemetery

We spent delightful hours with Julius, who stressed how beautiful Rachel was, how she “HOO-DOOED” Newt. Julius took us to a number of other places and gave his views on the history of Newt’s campaign against local Confederate officials during the war. We picked our way through the thick brush and kept an eye out for snakes as he showed us where Ben Knight and Sil Coleman were hanged after Confederate hound dogs had tracked them down. After Ben’s executioners refused his last request for water, according to folklore, water began to bubble up near his grave.

One other experience on that first trip to Jones County, in particular, helped to establish the feel of “Jones County Jubilee.” It was Earle Knight who rode with Vikki and me as we tried to locate the cemetery where Newt and Rachel are buried. Earle, who was 89 years old at the time, strained his eyes as I drove our new Ford Taurus down what had once been a pretty primitive dirt road. As I maneuvered the car to straddle washed-out gullies and drove through weeds that came up over the hood of the car, I started having second thoughts about just what in the hell we were doing. I mean, here we were, down in the swamp, dependent on the memory of an 89-year-old man who hadn’t even been to the cemetery in years. The rumble of thunder off in the distance added tension and a bit of urgency to our search for the graves. Then, at one point, Earle asked me to stop. Telling us to stay in the car, he got out and in a few minutes suddenly vanished in the brush. Oh, great, I told Vikki! What if he’d have a heart attack or something out there searching in the sweltering heat? Besides, the old road had taken so many twists and turns and the weeds were so high that we’d never find him or our way out of there. About that time, Earle reappeared and summoned us. He’d found the graves. “Praise the Lord,” I think I muttered at the time.

Separate photos of Newt and Rachel's graves, Newt Knight Cemetery

Separate photos of Newt and Rachel's graves, Newt Knight Cemetery

Over the next ten summers, I served as Vikki’s research assistant as we became familiar faces to many in the Jones County area, especially to members of the Knight family. In particular, Florence Blaylock opened her house to us, prepared fantastic meals, introduced us to members of the Knight family, and took us with her to services of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. In Jackson, the owners of a local restaurant (Martins, if I remember right) near the old Mississippi Department of History and Archives greeted us by name each summer, giving us free pieces of pie after we had filled up on their delicious cafeteria-style food.

 I didn’t set out to write a song about the Civil War history of Jones County. I had never even thought about it, in fact, but one day years later when I sat down with my guitar to write something with a good swamp feel, out came the words “way down in Mississippi.” And then it just flowed. I wanted to title the song, “Free State of Jones,” but when I did a google search, I discovered a great song by Cary Hudson, of Sumrall, Mississippi, that already had that name. That’s when I became first acquainted with the music of Cary and his band, Blue Mountain. What a treat when, a few years later, Vikki and I got to hear Cary perform the song at Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos, Texas, while he was on a Texas tour. About 7 months later, Cary and I did a show together at Cheatham Street, and he quickly became one of my own favorite songwriters.

Cary Hudson on harmonica with Doctor G and the Mudcats, Cheatham Street Warehouse, San Marcos, TX

Cary Hudson on harmonica with Doctor G and the Mudcats, Cheatham Street Warehouse, San Marcos, TX

“Jones County Jubilee” soon became popular among fans (including many pro-Confederates) as I began to perform it with my band, Doctor G and the Mudcats, here in south central Texas. We included it on my CD, Mudcat (Cheatham Street Records), which was produced by Kent Finlay and released in September, 2005.

Gregg Andrews (Doctor G)

San Marcos, Texas

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The following photograph, I’m sure you’ll agree, is intriguing. Posing together are two women, one of whom appears to be multiracial, the other white. Are they sisters? sisters-in-law? cousins? No one knows for certain, because no one knows exactly who these women are. All that is certain is that they were somehow connected to the Knight family of Jones County, Mississippi.

 

Who are these women?

Who are these women?

This photograph embodies the problems faced by authors of biographical studies—that of identifying accurately the subjects of their photos. Simply because a donor identifies a person as so-and-so doesn’t make it so. When that book is published, the author will quickly learn if others disagree with the donor’s opinion! No where is this more evident than in two rival photos published elsewhere on this blog (see here and here), both of which are claimed to be of Rachel Knight. In truth, no one can say definitively that either of the two competing photos is of Rachel. Yvonne Bivins believes that the second photo is Rachel because it fits her grandfather’s description of what she looked like, while Annette Knight has identified the same woman as Martha Ann Knight, her grandmother and a daughter of Rachel’s.

 In regard to the first picture, which appeared on the cover of my book, The Free State of Jones, I have long since relinquished my claim that it is Rachel. Yet, while some believe that the photo is of either Anna or Lessie Knight (Rachel’s granddaughters), others, including Dianne Walkup, still believe that it may indeed be Rachel.

To understand why, let’s return to the photo at the top of the page. Dianne believes that the woman on the left is the same woman who appeared on the cover of my book, and that both are Rachel. She and her sister Aggie believe that the woman on the right is Newt Knight’s white wife, Serena. They reason that she looks like a young version of the aged Serena who appears with her husband Newt in a photo taken late in the nineteenth century (see p. 154 of Free State of Jones). Since they also believe that Rachel and Serena came to terms with sharing Newt’s affections, they are not surprised that the women would pose together. It was George Ann’s relationship with Newt after Rachel’s death in 1889, Dianne asserts, that caused Serena to leave Newt’s household (ex-slave Martha Wheeler asserted the same. See p. 159 of Free State of Jones). The fact that Serena moved into the household of her son-in-law, Jeffrey (son of Rachel) and her daughter, Mollie (Jeffrey’s wife), is viewed by Dianne as further proof that Serena was alienated by George Ann’s relationship with Newt, but not from her multiracial family.

Yvonne Bivins believes just as firmly that the above photo is not of Rachel and Serena. Rather, Yvonne believes the woman on the left might be Anna Knight (consistent with other photos of Anna), and that the woman on the right might be Candace Smith Knight, who she identifies as the wife of Anna’s brother, John Howard Knight. Candace Smith was from the multiracial Smith/Ainsworth family. Many members of this family were white-skinned despite their “one drop” of African ancestry. If Yvonne is correct, then, this is a photo of multiracial sisters-in-law.

Clearly, unless a person’s name appears on an old photograph (and even then there’s a chance it’s wrong), or unless there is broad consensus among descendants about who that person is, one has only theories, not facts, to guide in the identification of photographs taken in the late 19th and early 20th century. Sometimes theories will produce consensus, but often they don’t. Given all the uncertainty, is anyone surprised to learn that NO photograph purported to be of Rachel Knight will appear in my forthcoming book, The Long Shadow of the Civil War?!

As always, I welcome your thoughts.

Vikki Bynum

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[Jonathan Odell has written extensively about his native state of Mississippi and is the author of the novel, The View From Delphi.  This post was adapted from comments Jon made on Kevin Levin's Civil War Memory blog.]

 

After interviewing many of the “Black Knight” descendants, one thing I’ve learned that concerns them is how easily whites are convinced to idealize the “romantic” relationship between Newt Knight and the ex-slave Rachel. I don’t think they would agree with a commenter who, as quoted on Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory blog, wrote that “it’s less problematic” that Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, authors of State of Jones,  “sexed up a romantic relationship for the sake of a film” then if they generally misread the meaning of Newt Knight and the Free State of Jones.

Black women in the days following the Civil War were at the bottom of the heap power-wise. Whether Knight’s assumed romantic feelings for Rachel were reciprocated is missing the point. We will never know, because in the context of that era, it was irrelevant. Good for her if she did, but for black mothers in those days, romantic love was not the driving motivation. Who they loved was immaterial to surviving. She had to find the least worst choice that would keep her and her children alive. Sexing up the relationship for a more satisfying (and modern) ending, further obscures the wrenching sacrifices made and amazing courage displayed by black women of that era.

Just another thought. I was raised in Jones County and have been fascinated to find that the Knights were not the only family line that diverged down two paths after the Civil War. Several former slave owners sired black offspring, and in this part of the country, many thought that even your black children were to be cared for. Many acres of land are still owned by descendants of slaves who were bequeathed the parcel by a white father. But in none of these incidents do the direct black descendants assume that anything like romantic love played a part. According to them black women after the War were as much sexual slaves to white men as they were before the war. And interestingly enough, neither do they call it rape. “Taking somebody to the barn,” as they commonly refer to the occurrence, was just the nature of things. I guess that’s why context is everything. Projecting 21st century notions of romantic love onto 19th century southern interracial relations, as Jenkins and Stauffer have done, won’t take us far toward understanding the lives of black, multiracial, or for that matter white women.

Jonathan Odell

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Earlier today, Yvonne Bivins sent the following comment to Renegade South. Given her extensive research and her personal connections to the Jones County Knights, I have, with her permission, converted her comment to a post. 

Vikki Bynum, Moderator

 

A Critique of The State of Jones

As a librarian and someone knowledgeable about my family history after researching for more than ten years, I found it took me almost two weeks to actually read the Jenkins/Stauffer book. I finally came to the same conclusion about this book as I did Echo of the Black Horn [by Ethel Knight]; it is fiction, historical fiction. I cannot believe and am quite disappointed that a Harvard Professor would produce such a poorly documented work. It sickens me. I stopped to tag all the pages that had words like “apparently” and phrases like “it is possible that” to describe incidents. The authors lead readers to believe that Newt was the only white man with such families of mixed race children living near their white families and that he was the only one to deed land to his mixed-race offspring. When I began my research, I stopped to read many books on the subject of slavery, miscegenation, slave mistresses and their relationship to slave concubines, etc. in order to gain a better understanding of the character of their relationships. I am tempted to write Doubleday to complain about this book.

Yvonne Bivins

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The State of Jones: The Small Southern County that Seceded from the Confederacy (Doubleday, 2009)

Those of you who have read my three-part review of State of Jones, by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, might want to visit Kevin Levin’s blog, Civil War Memory, where he allowed the authors to respond to my reviews. Ms. Jenkins and Professor Stauffer open by accusing me of attacking their work in order to promote my own, and end by accusing me of launching a “turf war.” In between, in a long, long, dissertation on sources, they seriously misrepresent my work, suggesting that I have willfully distorted the history of the Free State of Jones in my own book and thus failed to produce “good scholarship.” Be sure and read the many comments that follow their post, which include remarks by readers, moderator Kevin Levin, the authors, and myself.

I stand by my three-part review of their book, and hope to get back to blogging here about the Civil War histories of North Carolina, Mississippi, and Texas very soon. I’m excited that my new book continues to move toward production, and I will be announcing its new title very soon.

Vikki Bynum, Moderator, Renegade South

RELATED ARTICLES AND POSTS:

1. John Stauffer responds (again) to my review of State of Jones on Kevin Levin’s blog, Civil War Memory, August 24, 2009:  http://cwmemory.com/2009/08/24/john-stauffer-responds/#comment-10678

2. Prof. David S. Reynolds Reviews State of Jones  for The New York Times, August 16, 2009: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/16/books/review/Reynolds-t.html

3. Kevin Levin, Civil War Memory:  “A Statement about the State of Jones Dispute ” http://cwmemory.com/2009/07/30/a-statement-about-the-state-of-jones-dispute/

4. “Civil War Fires Up Literary Shoot-out,” by Michael Cieply, New York Times, July 30, 2009, on The State of Jones vs The Free State of Jones controversy: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/30/movies/30jones.html?_r=2&hpw

5. Vikki Bynum,  “Confessions of a Small-Town Texas Gadfly.” Renegade South

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