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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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A conversation with Victoria E. Bynum  

Author of The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies  

Published April 15, 2010  

$35.00 hardcover, ISBN 978-0-8078-3381-0  

The Long Shadow of the Civil War

  

Q. There seems no end to books about the American Civil War. What does The Long Shadow of the Civil War offer that is new?
A.
Although Civil War books about the home front are not new, this is a new sort of home front study that focuses on three communities from three different states. Rather than close with the war and Reconstruction, The Long Shadow of the Civil War follows individual Unionists and multiracial families into the New South era and, in some cases, into the twentieth century. This historical sweep allows the reader to understand the ongoing effects of the war at its most personal levels.
   

Q. What led you to combine three Civil War home fronts, all noted as areas of violent disorder, in one study? Why these three?
A.
Most basically, I combined them in order to provide in-depth comparisons of the communities within the same volume. But there’s more to it than that; the communities have important links to one another. The North Carolina Piedmont was the ancestral seedbed of migration into what became Jones County, Mississippi. Later, East Texas attracted many non-slaveholding Mississippi families seeking a less-developed piney woods region.  

All three regions exhibited fierce Unionist activity during the Civil War, with brothers fighting in separate deserter bands across state lines in two of the communities. So, combining them in one study provided a wonderful opportunity to identify common characteristics of Southern Unionism, while also showing how different geographic settings influenced the nature of the inner civil wars.
   

Q. What were the most important similarities among the three communities of dissent? The most important differences?  

A. All three communities were located outside the South’s plantation belt and all had large non-slaveholding majorities. Important differences were religious practices and length of settlement. The North Carolina Quaker Belt had a history of religious dissent that included Moravian, Mennonite and Dunker sects as well as Quakers.   

Beginning around 1848, Wesleyan Methodism, with its anti-slavery ideals, gained popularity in this region. The Quaker Belt was also a long-settled region of expansive, deeply entwined family networks that lent force and stability to anti-Confederate sentiments.

By contrast, neither Jones County, Mississippi, nor Hardin County, Texas, exhibited significant or organized religious dissent against slavery. As in North Carolina, family networks were important to anti-Confederate activity; however, in East Texas, more recent migration from states like Mississippi meant that family networks were less extensive there. Less cohesive and deeply rooted communities, coupled with politicians’ successful linking of Texas’s 1836 revolution to the Southern cause of secession, undermined organized anti-Confederate activity among non-slaveholders in East Texas.  

Q. Why did you return to the Free State of Jones County, Mississippi, and to the North Carolina Quaker Belt, two regions that you wrote about in previous books, for this study?
A.
Ever since I discovered that a splinter band of Unionist deserters, led by several brothers of members of the Jones County band, kept Confederate forces at bay in the Texas Big Thicket, and after discovering ancestral links between the North Carolina Piedmont and Jones County, Mississippi, I have wanted to combine the inner civil wars of these three regions in the same volume. Doing so also gave me the opportunity to analyze research materials that were not included in my earlier works: two examples are documents concerning the lives of freedpeople and poor whites in Orange County, North Carolina, and Newt Knight’s 1887-1900 Mississippi claim files.  

Q. You cite abolitionism as a motive for anti-Confederate sentiments in only one of your three communities: that of the Randolph County area of the North Carolina Quaker Belt. How and why did religion play such an important role in this region, but not in Jones County, Mississippi, or the Big Thicket of East Texas?
A.
The Randolph County area of North Carolina (including Montgomery and Moore Counties) was the “heart” of the state’s Quaker Belt. Quaker opposition to slavery had faded over time because of the state’s changing demographics, but it never entirely disappeared, making this region fertile ground for Wesleyan Methodists who gained a foothold in the 1850s. In Montgomery County, the Rev. Adam Crooks condemned slavery from the pulpit of the Lovejoy Methodist Church. In contrast, Jones County, Mississippi and Hardin County, Texas, were Baptist strongholds during the secession crisis. I have found no evidence that any Baptist church in either county publically opposed slavery or secession; indeed, the Leaf River Baptist Church of Jones County publically supported the Confederacy.
   

Q. Newt Knight, the controversial “captain” of the Knight Company, is a polarizing figure who even today evokes heated arguments among readers. Why is this so, and how did it affect your historical treatment of him?
A.
As long as we continue to debate the causes, meanings, and effects of the Civil War, Newt Knight’s motives and character will also be debated. We know that he defied Confederate authority during the war, supported Republican Reconstruction afterward, and openly crossed the color line to found a mixed-race community. To neo-Confederates, such facts make Newt a scoundrel and a traitor to his country and his race. To neo-abolitionists, he is a backwoods Mississippi hero who defended his nation and struggled to uplift the black race. My response to such powerful and emotional narratives is to examine critically not only the documentary evidence, but also the mountain of published opinions about Newt Knight that have too often functioned as “evidence” for both sides of the debate.  

Q. Newt Knight, his white wife Serena, and former family slave, Rachel, were the founding parents of a multiracial community. What sort of a community was it in terms of racial identity? How did members of the community identify themselves racially, as opposed to how the larger white society defined them?
A. As segregation took hold in New South Mississippi (1880-1900), the descendants of Newt, Serena, and Rachel were increasingly defined by white society as black, i.e. as “Negroes,” despite being of European, African, and Native American ancestry. Before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s, however, few of these descendants identified themselves as “black.” Depending on their physical appearance, including skin shade and hair texture, descendants of Newt and Rachel variously defined themselves as white, Indian, or colored. Whereas white society applied a “one drop rule” that grouped together all people of African ancestry, these descendants self-identified in ways that reflected their multiracial heritage.  

There is no direct evidence of how Newt, Serena, or Rachel racially identified their multiracial descendants. Descendant Yvonne Bivins, the most thorough Knight researcher, was told by her elders that Newt Knight actively encouraged his descendants to identify as white. All that is certain—but nonetheless remarkable—is that they economically supported, nurtured, and lived openly among both white and multiracial kinfolk all their lives.  

Q. By crossing the color line, Newt Knight deviated from the norm by acknowledging and supporting his multiracial descendants. What may we deduce from those facts about his political views on race relations in the era of segregation?
A.
Since we don’t know that Newt Knight identified his multiracial descendants as “black,” we can’t deduce from his intimate relationships with them, or by his efforts to enroll them in a local school (one that he helped create) alongside his white descendants, that he supported equality for all people of African ancestry—that is, for people classed as “Negroes.” Only if we adhere to the “one drop rule”—and assume that Newt Knight did, too—can we conclude that Newt’s protection of his own kinfolk extended to all Americans of African ancestry.  

Newt’s efforts on behalf of freedpeople as a Republican appointee during Reconstruction do not necessarily make him an advocate of black equality, as some historians have argued. There were many Reconstruction Republicans who supported the same basic rights of marriage and military service that Newt upheld for freedpeople, while supporting segregation and opposing black voting rights. We simply don’t know Newt’s political position on these issues.  

Q. For thirty years, Newt Knight petitioned the federal government to compensate his ad hoc military band, the Knight Company, for its support of the Union during the Civil War. What do those petitions reveal about the claims process itself, as well as the Knight Band?
A.
The transcripts from Newt Knight’s extensive claims files suggest the federal government’s hostility toward claims of Southern Unionism, especially after 1887, as the nation sank into a deep economic depression. That year, Newt renewed efforts begun in 1870 to win compensation.  

Several depositions of Jones County men made a strong case for Unionism among the Knight Company. The passage of time, however, doomed Newt’s claim to failure. His Washington, DC lawyers were unfamiliar with the Jones County uprising, while witnesses’ memories of the war faded over time. Most damaging, crucial evidence presented in Knight’s 1870 petition was misplaced by the government and never presented after 1887. At the same time, an expanding literature that portrayed the white South as having been unified around secession made Northerners all the more suspicious of Southern claims of Unionism.  

Q. The Long Shadow of the Civil War is as much about the legacies of Civil War dissent as about the war itself. Why did you include both topics in a single volume?
A.
To truly understand the Civil War, we need to understand its long-term impact on the lives of those who endured it. Southerners who took a Unionist stance lived with that decision all their lives, as did their children and grandchildren. Some struggled to put the war behind them and never spoke of it again; others, like Newt Knight and Warren Collins, defended their actions all their lives, and went on to fight new political battles.  

Multiracial communities that grew out of war and emancipation grew larger and more complex in the late nineteenth century. Faced with racial violence and segregation, many of their members exited the South during these years. But among those who remained, we witness the birth of a multiracial Southern middle class.
   

Q. You locate a long tradition of political dissent among certain Jones County families that found expression in third party political movements after the Civil War. How does this New South agrarian radicalism shed light on Civil War Unionism and vice versa?
A.
In all three regions, I found examples of emerging class consciousness among non-slaveholding farmers as a result of the Civil War. Late in life, Newt Knight, for example, offered a class-based critique of Southern society. Two prominent Unionist brothers, Jasper J. Collins of Jones County, Mississippi, and Warren J. Collins of Hardin County, Texas, went even further, carving out political careers as populists and socialists in two separate states.  

A close study of individual lives reveals how the Civil War reshaped their perspectives. Of course, the majority of Southern Unionists did not join third-party political movements in the aftermath of war. It appears, however, that some ideologically committed Unionists, such as the Collinses of Mississippi and Texas, grew ever more militant in their political views as the years passed.  

Q. Your epilogue, “Fathers and Sons,” compares and contrasts three twentieth-century histories of individual guerrilla leaders written by their sons. What do these biographical sketches reveal about the impact of kinship and politics on the Civil War memories of Southern Unionist families?
A.
All three biographies were written after the deaths of their subjects, and reflect the need for sons to defend notorious fathers against charges of treason, lawlessness, or ignorance—especially in the wake of New South glorification of the Confederate cause. Further complicating Tom Knight’s biography of Newt Knight was his effort to present his father as a hero to the segregated, virulently white supremacist society of the 1930s. At the time of Newt’s death, Tom was estranged from him and the family’s interracial community. He knew little about his father’s early years (his narrative is studded with factual errors) and his “memories” of Newt Knight during the Civil War and Reconstruction were profoundly influenced by his need to valorize Newt and thereby restore respect for his family. Though very different in tone and accuracy, Vinson A. Collins’s and Loren Collins’s biographies of their fathers, Warren J. Collins of Texas and Jasper J. Collins of Mississippi, are presented not only with a sense of each son’s relationship with his father, but also in the context of the nation’s politicized memories of the Civil War.  

###
This interview may be reprinted in its entirety with the following credit: A conversation with Victoria E. Bynum, author of The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies (University of North Carolina Press, Spring 2010). The text of this interview is available at http://www.ibiblio.org/uncp/media/bynum/.
                                                                                                                              PUBLISHING DETAILS
ISBN 978-0-8078-3381-0, $35.00 hardcover
Publication date: April 15, 2010
240 pp., 9 illus., 1 map, bibl., notes, bibl., index
For more information: http://uncpress.unc.edu/books/T-7790.html
The University of North Carolina Press, http://www.uncpress.unc.edu
116 South Boundary Street, Chapel Hill, NC 27514-3808
919-966-3561 (office) 1-800-848-6224 (orders) 919-966-3829 (fax)  

CONTACTS
Publicity: Gina Mahalek, 919-962-0581; gina_mahalek@unc.edu
Sales: Michael Donatelli, 919-962-0475; michael_donatelli@unc.edu
Rights: Vicky Wells, 919-962-0369; vicky_wells@unc.edu

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Researching Civil War Home Fronts and Beyond

by Vikki Bynum

Back in fall, 2001, just months after the release of my book, Free State of Jones, David Woodbury (moderator of Battlefields and Bibliophiles) interviewed me for the Civil War Forum Conference Series. As I read today the questions that he and others posed, and my answers to them, it becomes clear why I wrote The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies. There was so much more I wanted to know, or knew and wanted to tell. For example, although I identified the Collins and allied families as representing the heart of Jones County Unionism, I had only touched on the parallel renegade band led by another branch of the same family in the Big Thicket of East Texas.  Likewise, I had barely tapped into records detailing the postwar political activism of Collinses in both Mississippi and Texas.  And then there was Newt Knight himself. I obtained copies of Newt’s voluminous claim files of 1887-1900 from independent researcher Ken Welch shortly before Free State of Jones went to press. Although the claim files did not change my essential understanding of Newt Knight, they provided such rich detail about the claims process, and the men who either joined or opposed the Knight Band, that I decided to devote a chapter to them in the new book. In yet another chapter, I expanded on the history of the multiracial Knight community that resulted from collaboration between Newt Knight and Rachel, the former slave of his grandfather. For the new book, I also returned to my research on the Unionists of the North Carolina Piedmont who figured so prominently in my first book, Unruly Women. The inner civil war that raged in North Carolina’s “Quaker Belt” (Montgomery, Moore, and Randolph Counties) had stimulated me to research the similar “war” of Jones County.  Yet, despite their similarities, I soon discovered important differences between these Civil War home front wars. That’s when I decided to compare all three communities of dissent–those of Jones Co., MS, the NC Quaker Belt, and the Big Thicket of East Texas–in the same volume. And so the idea for Long Shadow of the Civil War was born. As you read the 2001 question and answer session that follows, I think you’ll understand why I felt compelled to continue my research on southern dissenters, and to expand the story even further beyond the Civil War. My thanks to David Woodbury for permission to repost his Q & A session with me.

 

Transcript of the 35th session of the Civil War Forum Conference Series. GUEST: Dr. Victoria Bynum TOPIC: The subject of her book, “The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War” Date: October 25, 2001 ——————————– Greetings, and welcome to the  35th session of the Civil War Forum conference series. We are very pleased tonight to have with us Dr. Victoria Bynum, professor of history at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, discussing the subject of her new book: “The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War” (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001). Let’s get started.

Q. (David Woodbury): Welcome Dr. Bynum.  Since this is probably a fairly obscure topic even among Civil War buffs, can you begin with an overview of Jones County, and what set it apart from the rest of Mississippi (e.g., the paucity of slaves there), and the events that gave rise to stories of the so-called “Free State,” or Kingdom of Jones?

A. (Victoria Bynum): Jones County was founded in 1826, and it’s part of one of the earlier-settled sections of Mississippi (because of Native Americans already being pushed out of that part of the state, but not out of the more fertile portions of Mississippi). Many of the earliest settlers were veterans of the War of 1812, especially. I won’t go too much into it, but because it was the Piney Woods region, you didn’t have a great many slaveholders there. Slavery was important — there were slaveholders — but not many *big* slaveholders. It had the lowest number of slaveholders of any county in the state, and almost 80 percent of those slaveholders owned fewer than four slaves. So, just to leap forward to the Civil War itself, this was a region that was pretty ripe — by around 1862 — for seeing the war as a “rich man’s war” and “poor man’s fight,” because they were the poorest men in the state. I don’t want to imply that they were landless, because they were small landowners, but in terms of slaveholders, they were the poorest in the state. [The county] voted almost 2-1 against secession. Moving ahead to the 20th century about how all these stories got started — what made this story so legendary and why it has persisted so long is that the leader of this band of deserters crossed the color line. Now, it’s not that crossing the color line was so unusual, it’s the way that Newton Knight did it. He not only crossed the line, but two of his children intermarried with the children of the slave woman who was his chief collaborator (it was after the war that they intermarried — she was his collaborator during the war). And that resulted in a mixed-race community that’s still very vibrant today — a very large mixed-race community that claims descent from Rachel the slave, and Newton, the leader of the deserter band. …So you’ve had this ongoing battle — this is why I make the second part of the title, “Mississippi’s Longest Civil War,” because factions of this family have been debating the meaning of this uprising since the Civil War. And with the racial aspect, it has made the debate particularly volatile. Those who wanted to defend the Unionism of the Knight band generally just erased the story of the race-mixing, and those who were pro-Confederate . . . used the racial mixing as just further examples that these were deviant men who committed treason against the country, against the Confederacy, and against their race. That’s why the story has lasted, [and] because there have been several books written, and a novel, and even a movie made from the novel.

Q. (David Woodbury): One of the fun things about reading your book is the spirit of investigation, or discovery, in unmasking the past. Can you recall any major breakthroughs during the course of your research, or any particular surprises you encountered upon digging deeper?

A. (Victoria Bynum): I believe some of the most delightful surprises were the ongoing discoveries I made about the Collins family — I believe that their story is one that was buried because of the notoriety of Newt Knight. The discovery that their ancestors were both Regulators back in the 1760s and Populists in the 1890s kind of gave me a whole view of Southern dissent as represented by this family, in a way that just stood right out — and made them the core of the Unionist group there, rather than Newt Knight. And I want to add that probably the biggest surprise was that the Collinses had brothers in Texas who were leaders of their own deserter band, so there were actually two deserter bands which existed simultaneously. It just showed the uncompromising nature of their Unionism; not nearly all the deserters were as Unionist as the Collins’s. There was a core group of about five different families that I would call truly Unionist. Putting that together was very exciting, because I kept finding connections between the very distant past, and the Civil War era, and connections between the  various families as well.

Q. (Margaret  D. Blough): What was the reaction of the Confederate authorities? Was it as  brutal as the suppression of the earlier East Tennessee Unionist uprising?

A. (Victoria Bynum): I’m not sure just how brutal that was, in terms of making an exact comparison, but the Confederacy did send two expeditions into Jones County to put down the uprisings there, and in the Official Records [of the Confederate and Union Armies] there is quite a bit of discussion of Jones County. The most important example is Colonel Lowry’s raid on Jones County. In the space of a few days, they executed ten members of the Knight Company –the Knight Band. That was the worst experience that the  Jones County group experienced. I imagine that it was probably worse in East Tennessee due to the geographic location. Jones County was still pretty remote, and there weren’t as many raids.

Q. (Teresa N. Blaurock): So nice to have you here to tell us more about your book! My co-workers, not Civil War buffs, were intrigued by the subject, and seemed ready to read more on the topic. One question I had is about “jeans” cloth. Can you tell us anything about it?

A. (Victoria Bynum): [You're] referring to when Newton Knight — in 1865, he was relief commissioner — had an order from the military government in place at that time to seize a certain amount of goods from the former CSA representative of the county, who was a merchant, and they refer to Jeans cloth in there…

Q. (Stevan F. Meserve): Jeans cloth is not denim, but a particular weave of wool. It was  commonly used in uniform trousers. I just had to stick that in. My question is about Unionist sentiment in Jones County. How many precincts of the county voted to remain in the Union? Here in Loudoun County, Virginia, for example, three of 16 precincts voted to remain in the Union.  Overall, the county voted 2:1 to secede.

A. (Victoria Bynum): All I know — that I’ve been able to find — is that 166 people voted against secession, and I believe it was about 89 who voted for it… Let’s see… Yes, 166 for the Cooperationist Candidate, and 89 for the Secessionist Candidate. In fact, neighboring Perry County (I don’t have those numbers with me) was even more Unionist. So Jones County was not isolated in that respect. The Perry County delegate held out longer.

Q. (Margaret  D. Blough): Did any of the Jones County Unionists articulate why they supported the Union? The pressure must have been intense in the Deep South for secession?

A. (Victoria Bynum): Yes, of course in their county they didn’t feel that so directly — more so when the war began — but (after the war) they cited the 20 Negro Law [when] citing reasons for their desertion from the Confederacy. The only articulated Unionist statements are by the Collins family, who did not believe that the election of Abraham Lincoln was grounds for secession. And there’s a quote of a certain Collins brother counseling men to try to get duty in the hospitals as nurses if they did join the service — that they should not fight against the Union. And one more statement attributed to the Collinses is that while they didn’t believe in slavery, they also did not believe that the federal government had the right to end it.

Q. (Teresa N. Blaurock): Early in the book, you describe rivers that were dammed to provide power for mills, but preventing fishing for those needing to do that. It seems such a conflict! I know the Jones County deserters were really against the 20 Negro Law, which was the objection to “government” in their era.

A. (Victoria Bynum): One of the things that I found, as you no doubt noticed, were that these were people who were very touchy about the government’s role in their lives. And again to use the Collinses as an example, since they were always in the thick of it — as they moved across the frontier they continued petitioning the government to respect their rights as citizens and to provide them protection, not only against Indians, but against corrupt local officials. So this is a theme that runs throughout their history, and I think that’s the point that you’re making with your comment.

Q. (David Woodbury): It sounds like your research benefited nearly as much from elderly locals and descendants as it did from archival work. That is, they were able to show you things, like the grave sites of Newt and Rachel Knight. Could you have written this book 20 or 30 years from now, after many of these people are gone?

separate photos of tombstones of Rachel (left) and Newt Knight. Photos by Victoria Bynum

A. (Victoria Bynum): I agree that my personal contacts with descendants was really crucial to the book, and no I couldn’t have written the same book. I could have written *a* book — a study — but in fact when I started writing this book I had no idea that I would achieve the kind of contact with local people that I did. It brought perspectives that I just don’t think I could have pieced together from archival documents. In particular, I don’t think I could have described the mixed race community if I hadn’t spent a lot of time among the descendants of Rachel and Newton Knight… And I don’t believe I could have written *nearly* the kind of study of their community without that personal contact. That was crucial.

Q. (Margaret  D. Blough): To tie into what Terry asked, I’ve seen some opinions that many of the Unionists areas in North Carolina, etc., in the mountains had had no experience with the US government, except for the postal system and the first experience they had with an intrusive government was Confederate authorities enforcing the conscription and impressment laws?  Is that what you saw?

A. (Victoria Bynum): I would say that in general that was true, once they settled in Jones County, that they had a lot of local autonomy. Some writers suggest there was no real government in Jones County before the war, but that just isn’t true. But it is fair to say that they had very limited contact with state government at the top, or federal government. However, I would still point out that their frontier petitions do show quite an interest in the Federal government and  its power. They have a long history of protest of corrupt local government, and I suspect that during the Civil War they developed a similar relationship with the Federal government, because they saw the Confederacy as another example of corrupt local government. That tradition goes all the way back to the Regulators.

Q. (David Woodbury): You include a photograph of the Leaf River in your book, “site of Deserter’s Den — the Knight Company’s Civil War hideout.” Were you able to pinpoint the actual location, and what is there today  (presumably private property)?

The Leaf River, intersection of Covington and Jones Co., MS, site of Deserters’ Den. Photo by Victoria Bynum

A. (Victoria Bynum): It is private property today. I took the photo myself and I was taken there by one of those local old-timers. Not very far from that river — the site of that river in the photograph — is the cemetery of Newton Knight’s grandfather. That land is now in the hands of a private company, and we had to be escorted into the cemetery by someone who had a key… But all of those lands used to be owned by the core members of the deserter band.

Q. (Stevan F. Meserve): On the subject of “intrusive” government, how much intrusion did Jones County see during the war from officials on either side? The territory between Hattiesburg and Meridian was pretty much no man’s land, wasn’t it?

A. (Victoria Bynum): I think it was pretty much considered no-man’s land between those areas. The Confederacy managed to have a Home Guard unit down in Jones County, headed by a local Confederate officer, and that was Amos McLemore, reputed to have been murdered by Newt Knight and his men. By April of 1864, when more and more reports were reaching Confederate officials elsewhere that Jones County was under the control of deserters, and they had murdered some of the tax agents, then they sent the two expeditions I mentioned earlier… Col. Maury, in March (1864), subdued the deserters a bit but they came back just as strong, so then they sent Col. Robert Lowry in April. Now that really did splinter the band. He executed ten of them, and that’s when a number of them fled to New Orleans and joined the Union army. About 40 — they weren’t all members of the band — about 40 Jones County men joined the Union Army in New Orleans… And then about 15 men were captured and forced back into the Confederate army. That left about 20 more whom they never caught, including Newt Knight, still out in the swamps.

Q. (Teresa N. Blaurock): You describe the prominent role of women in the book. Using “polecat musk and red pepper” to throw off the scent of the men from the dogs was rather emphatic. How did that come to be known as the thing to use?

A. (Victoria Bynum): Well, according to Ethel Knight, who wrote the best known book (The Echo of the Black Horn, 1951), the white women learned it from Rachel, the slave. I don’t know where she got her information from.

Q. (Azby): In your opinion, at what point did the Civil War become “inevitable”?  question?

A. (Victoria Bynum): I would suppose that once Lincoln called for troops from the South, and even many who opposed secession turned the other way — when the image of invasion became a vivid one, the firing on Fort Sumter and the call for troops, one could say that’s when it began to appear inevitable. Or you could look at it more broadly, and simply say that when the Northern states put in their constitutions gradual emancipation while the South simultaneously began designs for expanding slavery into the Southwest, some would say that’s when war became inevitable. But I’m not real big on “inevitability.”

Q. (David Woodbury): When did you first hear of the legend about Jones County in the Civil War? And what first drew you to this as a subject of scholarly research?

A. (Victoria Bynum): I first learned about Jones County around 1976 when I was an undergraduate in college. I saw it in a footnote in the Randall and Donald — the old Civil War text [Randall, James G., and David H. Donald. The Civil War and Reconstruction]. I did not hear about it from within my own family, even though my father was born in Jones County. What drew me to it as a subject of scholarship was writing my first book, Unruly Women. I have two chapters on the Civil War there, and one of those chapters centers on a county very similar to Jones County in many ways, and that’s Montgomery County, North Carolina. …But I just became fascinated with the topic of Southern Unionism, and the way that entire families were involved in resisting the Confederacy. It was both the class element in it, and the participation of women and free blacks in North Carolina that made me then want to look at Jones County. So, it was only as I developed as a historian myself that I decided I would like to do a study of Jones County.

Q. (David Woodbury): Would you talk a little bit about the so-called “white Negro” community in Jones County after the war, the trial of Davis Knight in the 1940s, and why this is such an important part of the story of “The Free State of Jones.”

A. (Victoria Bynum): I think it’s incredibly important because it reveals how 20th century race relations and segregation buried the story of the Free State of Jones beneath all these stereotypes about race-mixing, and then combined with the Myth of the Lost Cause, which presented Unionists as treasonous. The story had just become so distorted. And so I began and ended the book with the trial to basically look at why race was such a volatile part of the story, and then to move from there to look at the story of a class-based uprising of white men that is an important story in its own right, and would not have been buried so deeply if it had not been for the obsession with Newton Knight’s interracial relationship with Rachel. And so I was determined to tell both stories, and particularly to try to bring back the stories of all these other members of Knight’s band who had just sort of been lost from the picture. Thanks everyone. The questions were good ones, I enjoyed them.

The Long Shadow of the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2010)

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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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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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RACHEL KNIGHT

BY

SONDRA YVONNE BIVINS

Rachel Knight was about sixteen years old when John “Jackie” Knight of Covington County, MS, came into possession of her in the spring of 1856.  Rachel was born on March 14, 1840 in Macon, GA.  Mormon Missionary records show that her parents were named Abraham and Viney.  That is all we know of her past life.  At about the time Rachel arrived on Jackie Knight’s place his brother, James Knight, moved from Monroe County to Bibb County to live with his son, Thomas.  It is quite possible that Rachel was first owned by James Knight.  One of the constant threats that slaves faced was the danger of being sold away from family.  By the time Rachel was fifteen years old, she had two children, Rosetta and George Ann. The fact that George Ann was nearly white possibly caused some dissention in Georgia, and may be the reason Rachel and her girls were sold.  I have no proof that this was the case; however, I do know that historically, a white slave child born on a plantation caused friction in the family of the owner.  Ironically, the white mistress typically blamed the slave woman for her husband’s indiscretion; thus, the vixen described in Echo of the Black Horn was born.

My grandfather, Warren Smith, described Rachel as a “Guinea Negro,” meaning she was racially mixed but did not look white, nor was she light-skinned, but had “nice hair”–not kinky and shoulder length. To get an idea of how Rachel must have looked, I began to prod my mother to tell me exactly what my grandfather said about Rachel. According to my mother, he said that she looked like another woman who had lived in our community when she was growing up. This woman was short in stature, had a dark brown complexion and long thick coarse black hair that was not kinky. Hearing this, I realized that Rachel undoubtedly looked very much like her daughter, Martha Ann Knight who, in my opinion, could easily pass for an Australian Aborigine.

Martha Ann Knight, daughter of Rachel Knight and probably Newt Knight. Collection of Yvonne Bivins.

Martha Ann Knight, daughter of Rachel Knight and probably Newt Knight. Collection of Yvonne Bivins.

Shortly after Rachel arrived on John Knight’s plantation, his son, Jesse Davis, began a sexual relationship with her.  His relationship with Rachel resulted in the birth of Jeffrey Early on March 15, 1858. Given the tenuousness of her condition, it is doubtful that Rachel would have seduced Jesse.  She already knew what happened when a slave woman gave birth a “white child,” because it had happened to her before; she was sold.  In John Jackie Knight’s will, dated September 4, 1860, he willed Rachel and Jeffrey to Jesse Davis.  The will reads as follows:

“…and to my son, Jesse D. Knight I do will and bequeath a certain Negro woman named Rachel and Jeffrey, her child with her increase, if any, on his paying to each of the heirs of my son, Benjamin Knight, deceased.”

The estate was auctioned on March 20, 1861 almost a year before shots were fired at Ft. Sumter, SC.  After Jesse came into possession of Rachel, Edward was born on February 8, 1861 and then Fanny was born March 18, 1863.  Now mind you, Jesse had a wife and ten children with the last born in January 1863.

Jesse Davis was mustered in the 27th Mississippi Infantry of the Confederate States of America in November or December 1861. In December 1863, Jesse Davis contracted measles during the Battle of Atlanta and died of pneumonia. He was buried in the Civil War Cemetery in Atlanta, GA.

Newt’s relationship with Rachel began toward the end of the Civil War when it is believed she helped him and his band of deserters and marauders evade capture during his raids on supply trains. Rachel was very superstitious and practiced using herbs for healing and warding off wild animals and such.

During the five years after the War Newton’s and Rachel’s relationship was firmly established. Newt set Rachel and her children up in a house next door to his family and brought them up as white. Unlike most whites in the Piney Woods who were keeping “open secrets,” he did not hide his relationships with Rachel and her daughter George Ann. This was taboo and disturbing to local residents both white and black. Newt’s reputation for punishing anyone who crossed him kept anyone from attempting to harass his family.  Before he died in 1922, he had become a living legend and the centerpiece of the legend of the Free State of Jones.

According to census records, on July 14, 1870, Rachel and her children lived next door to Newt and Serena in the Southwest Beat of Jasper County. Rachel was described as a black female, age 30, born in Georgia. In her house were six children: George Ann, a mulatto female, age 17; Jefferson (Jeffery), a mulatto male, age 15; Edmond, a mulatto male, age 13; Fancy (Fan), a mulatto female, age 11; Marsha (Martha), a mulatto female, age 9; and Stuart, a mulatto male, age 7. Newton ran his home in a harem-like fashion having simultaneous relationships with Serena, his wife, Rachel, and George Ann, Rachel’s daughter. During the early 1870s, George Ann gave birth to two children that many believe were fathered by Newton: John Howard, born August 1871, and Rachel Anna, born March 1874.  However, Cleo Garraway, Howard’s granddaughter, said that she never heard anyone say that Newt was the father of her grandfather, Howard, or her Aunt Anna. After Rachel’s death in 1889, Gracie was born in November 1891 and Lessie was born in May 1894. Cleo was so ashamed of the circumstances of her birth, she did not care to know from whom she was descended.

Cleo Knight Garraway, daughter of John Howard Knight, son of George Ann Knight. Collection of Yvonne Bivins.

Cleo Knight Garraway, daughter of John Howard Knight, the only son of George Ann Knight. Collection of Yvonne Bivins.

As soon as Rachel’s children and grandchildren were old enough to marry, Newt encouraged them to marry whites or at least someone nearly white.  According to information I have gleaned from family stories, he wanted to erase that “one drop” of Negro blood in their veins.  Many whites believe or want to believe that Newt forced his two older children to marry Rachel’s Jeffrey and Fan as claimed in Echo of the Black Horn, but family history says “not so.” Contrary to popular belief, Rachel’s children coexisted in relative harmony with their white kin and neighbors, including Tom.

While having children with Rachel, the domineering, larger-than-life Newton continued to have children with his wife, Serena Turner, whose last child was born in 1875.  Indeed, Serena was the quintessentially dutiful southern wife, dependent on her husband and silently suffering the personal degradation of Newt’s relationships with Rachel and George Ann.  The 1910 census shows her living in the home of her daughter, Mollie.  Was she simply tired of living with Newt, or was she so old and infirm that she had to move in with the daughter for care?

Serena Knight in old age. Collection of Yvonne Bivins.

Serena Knight in old age. Collection of Yvonne Bivins.

In June, 1880, Rachel Knight and her children still lived next door to Newton and Serena.  On the census, she is described as a black female, age 40 (prior to June 1), born in Georgia.  Her parents are listed as born in Virginia.  Living in the household were George Ann, a mulatto female, age 26; Jeffrey, a mulatto male, age 22; Martha Ann, a mulatto female, age 15; John S[teward], a mulatto male, age 12; John Floyd, a mulatto male age 10; and Augusta Ann, a mulatto female, age 7.  This census contains several mistakes; e.g. Jeff Knight is listed two houses down from Rachel at dwelling 105 and also included in Rachel’s house at dwelling 107.  George Ann is also listed twice, first as daughter then as granddaughter.  George Ann’s household included herself, a mulatto female, age 26 (erroneously identified as Rachel’s granddaughter); John H[oward], a mulatto male, age 9 (grandson); and Rachel (Anna), a mulatto female, age 6 (granddaughter).

George Ann Knight, daughter of Rachel Knight. Collection of Yvonne Bivins

George Ann Knight, daughter of Rachel Knight. Collection of Yvonne Bivins

The Mormon Church began proselytizing throughout the South and in particular Jones County in the early 1880’s.  Rachel, along with Fan and her family, was convinced to join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. According to Knight researcher Kenneth Welch, Rachel traveled out to Utah but came back to Mississippi because it was too cold.

At Rachel’s place, located near Newt’s, family members worked very hard but made a good living on the self-sufficient farm, They earned money to pay for things like coffee, sugar and goods like shoes and dishes. They raised cows for milk and butter; raised chickens and sold eggs; planted fields and sold the produce; canned vegetables from a small garden, and even made their clothes.  Life was hard; they lived on a farm in an isolated community located near the Jasper-Jones county line.

In February, 1889, Rachel died; she was only 49 years old.  She did not leave a will but left about 180 acres of farm land for her children. According to family members, she died from having too many babies too close together.  A child was born to her every two years beginning at the age of fourteen. In 1914, Rachel’s children filed a lawsuit against J. R. McPherson in order to keep their land inheritance.

Yvonne Bivins

click here for part three!

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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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