Multiracial Families/Communities

Serena Knight

by Vikki Bynum

There are many participants in the Free State of Jones that I wish I knew more about. One of them is Serena Knight, the white wife of Newt Knight.

Serena is often forgotten in the rush to spotlight Newt’s interracial relationship with Rachel.  And, yet, Serena appears central to Newt’s decision to desert the Confederate Army; she was the mother of nine of his children. And she still lived with him in 1880, long after Rachel had begun to give birth to children believed to be fathered by her husband.

There was nothing unusual about Southern white men having sexual relations with black women, either forced or consensual, right under their wives’ noses, particularly before slavery was abolished. But Newt and Serena Knight’s post-Reconstruction interracial homestead was quite unusual. In 1878, two of their children, Matt and Mollie, married two of Rachel’s children, Fannie and Jeffrey. That made three interracial Knight unions that lived on the same land, although not in the same households. By 1880, these Knights constituted an interracial community that continued to grow over the years.

Interestingly, Serena left Newt’s household sometime between 1880 and 1900, yet did not vacate the Knight community even after several of her grown children married white partners and left.  Instead, she lived with her daughter Mollie and son-in-law Jeffrey (Rachel’s son) until her daughter’s death around 1917. Photographs indicate that even after Mollie’s death, Serena remained close to Jeffrey and her grandchildren. They were, after all, family.  Serena’s relationships over the years clearly suggest that she, as well as Newt, broke the social (if not sexual) rules of southern segregationist society.

But what about Serena and Newt’s personal relationship? Rachel died in 1889; what effect did her death have on them, particularly since Newt apparently fathered two children (Grace and Lessie) with Rachel’s daughter, Georgeanne, within five years of Rachel’s death?  Was that the final straw for Serena, the moment when she left their household forever?

Newt and Rachel may indeed have shared a great love for one another, as many believe. If so, it was a love fraught with consequences for others over the years: Newt’s white son Tom never got over the shame associated with his father and siblings crossing the color line; Newt’s multiracial great-grandson, Davis, was convicted of miscegenation in 1948 for marrying a white woman (the conviction was overturned); Newt’s grand-niece, Ethel Knight, published The Echo of the Black Horn in 1951 to dispel any notion that her branch of the family approved of either the Knight Company or Newt’s interracial relations.

But what about Serena? We probably know the least about the feelings of the wife who shared Newt’s household for decades, and remained in the Knight community long after she had left her philandering husband.

Addendum: Click here to see my updated Feb. 14, 2015 essay on Serena Knight—vb

4 replies »

  1. Serena is my great great grandfather’s daughter! ..Even have a few records of Serena and Newt.What I read was closer to what little talk there was in the family..


  2. Thanks for posting about your kinship to Serena Turner Knight, Mike! How neat that your family has preserved a few records of her and Newt Knight. If you care to share from those records, I’m all ears (or eyes)!



  3. I am so grateful for this movie, to have learned of Newt Knight and his family. It breaks my heart how these people (those who went to the swamp and/or deserted) were treated just because they had different beliefs from the Confederate Army. I hope Serena and Rachel got along as well as shown in the movie. There are moments that I like the gentility of the Old South but they remain brief when I remember the atrocities and how fortunes were made on the backs of others. Free State of Jones will remain one of those movies that makes my blood boil and it will remain one I need to see from time to time to remind me just how terrible things were. Thanks for this informative post and to Mike Turner who commented about his relationship to Serena. I may be getting old but there is always something interesting to learn. (Not related to this movie but there is another interesting Civil War history in book form about Elizabeth Van Eck who, to all, appeared a proper Southern woman but did everything in her power to aide the northern cause. I believe she became the first female postmistress of Richmond. I just cannot recall the title of the book at the moment).


  4. I need to make a correction to my previous post. How I wish there were an edit button. The woman to whom I referred was named Elizabeth Van Lew (not van Eck) and the book is “Southern Lady, Yankee Spy”. Not at all related to Newt, et al, but just another interesting woman who followed her own beliefs during a difficult time. As a child, about age 8, I was given the book “Thee Hannah” by Marguerite de Angeli. Living very close to Germantown at the time, I often found myself wondering if I, at her young age, would have learned the value of a Quaker bonnet (which she at first hated because a neighbor girl had one covered in ribbons and whatnots). I like to think I would have helped, as I am sure we all do, but in later years wondered if I would have had her strength – or the strength of Newt Knight and his family and followers. What a wonderful blog you have! Thank you.


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