Multiracial Families/Communities

An American Family: The Multiracial Knight Community

By Vikki Bynum


Several members of the extended Knight family are gathered here.

Several members of the extended Knight family are gathered here.

After posting my blog about Serena Knight, I returned to my research and photo files. There, I located this photograph of the Jeffrey and Ella Knight family, which is particularly revealing about Serena’s life after she left the home of her husband, Newt Knight. In the first edition of my book, The Free State of Jones, I included this picture, but mis-identified it (identification has since been corrected). I originally had been told it was a photo of Jeffrey Early Knight, son of Rachel, and his first wife, Martha Ann (Mollie) Knight, the daughter of Newt and Serena Knight. Well, it is a photo of Jeffrey, and I was correct in identifying the elderly woman seated in front as Serena Knight, Jeffrey’s mother-in-law. But this photo was taken after the 1917 death of Mollie, Jeffrey’s first wife and Serena’s daughter. I have Dianne Walkup of Monterey, CA, a descendant of Jeffrey and Mollie Knight, to thank for setting me straight.

So, the woman standing next to Jeffrey is not Mollie, but rather is his second wife, Sue Ella (called Ella) Smith. Like Jeffrey, Ella was descended from a multiracial family. Her grandmother was Martha Ann Ainsworth, the only slave of Sampson “Jeff” Ainsworth of neighboring Smith County. All six of Martha Ann’s children are believed to have been fathered by Jeff Ainsworth. Like Rachel Knight, Martha Ann was herself multiracial. She was of Native American and probably African and European ancestry. After the Civil War, the multiracial Ainsworths intermarried extensively with the Knights and another multiracial family of the area, the Smiths, who may have descended from Mahala Smith, born in 1832 in Alabama and identified by Mississippi census enumerators as a Mulatta.*

Back to the photograph. The children and young adults who surround Jeffrey, Ella, and Serena represent an extended, blended, and genealogically complex family. On the far left is Ada Knight, the daughter of Newt and Serena’s youngest daughter, Cora. Next to Ada is Mabry Knight, Ella’s son by her previous marriage to Henry Knight, who was Jeffrey’s nephew. Standing behind Ella is Wilder Knight, the son of Floyd Knight, whose parents were Rachel and, allegedly, Newt Knight. Wilder’s mother was Lucy Ainsworth Knight, the daughter of Martha Ann Ainsworth and, allegedly, Sampson “Jeff”Ainsworth, making him Ella’s half-brother. The remaining two children on the right are Ella’s son, Lacy, and her daughter, Nobie. Their father is alleged to have been Charlie Knight, a son of Jeffrey and Mollie Knight. If true, these children were both the grandchildren and stepchildren of Jeffrey Knight. (For more on the Ainsworth-Knights, see Bynum, The Long Shadow of the Civil War.)

Represented in this extended family portrait are descendants of slaves, slaveholders, and non-slaveholders, Native Americans, African Americans, and Euro-Americans. Serena Knight, like her estranged husband, Newt, lived among her multiracial kinfolk until the end of her long life. She died in 1923 at the age of 85, having outlived Old Newt by one year.

*My knowledge of the Ainsworth, and Smith family lines has been greatly enhanced by the research of Dianne Walkup, Yvonne Bivins, and Shirley Pieratt.

A caveat to the above identifications:  The 1920 census listed Lacy as two years older than Mabry, making me suspect that their identities should be reversed on the photograph.

23 replies »

  1. Mrs. Bynum,

    I am writing a short research paper on Tap Roots and The Free State of Jones, with comparisons to historical research like your own. I was drawn to the project by a family account of one of my Davis ancestor’s encounter with Newt Knight.

    If you could personally highlight a few points from the film you found interesting or point me to specific places within your book, I would really appreciate the help.

    Also, my grandmother was an Ainsworth before her marriage. I’ll going to be contacting the family’s de facto historian for more information, which I’d be happy to pass on if you’d like.


  2. Hello David,
    Good luck with your research paper. I have not seen the movie, Tap Roots; have only read the novel. Perhaps some of our readers have seen it and would care to comment.

    In regard to my book, I discuss Street’s works in various places throughout. Not sure which of those sections would best suit your work.

    You mention your “Davis ancestors.” Would this be the family line of Keziah Davis Knight?

    Yes, I would very much appreciate it if you passed on any Ainsworth research my way. The Ainsworth historian I am most familiar with is Shirley Pieratt of Texas–have you read her work?

    Thanks for visiting Renegade South, Hope to hear more from you.



  3. Mostly, I am looking for the actual events surrounding the establishment of the Free State of Jones, centering on Newt Knight and how his actions could both be seen as Heroic and villainous, as compared with actions in the movie. (Or book)

    Included in that, I am interested in any primary documents and accounts concerning interactions between Jones county civilians and the Knight Company, both good and bad.

    Paper-wise, I’m not as interested in the genealogies and past histories of families in the area as my paper is supposed to be event-centered. However, I would be very interested personally as to any ancestors I could learn more of.

    I don’t think the Davis ancestor I was speaking of was related to Davis Knight; the last name was Davis. The reason I mentioned the Ainsworths was because I noticed you mentioned one in the above photo. How were they related to the Knights?

    Thank you very much for working with me. Is there anyway I can purchase your book The Free State of Jones digitally? I was very strapped for cash until recently, and so by the time I order it, the shipping times would make it arrive after the due date.


    • Hi David,
      The most important documented events of the Free State of Jones that I cite in my book are the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (on Lowry’s raid, especially), the Civil War state legislative and governor’s papers (especially on 1865 battles over political power in Jones County, including the temporary renaming of Jones County). and Newt Knight’s post-war petitions for compensation by the federal government for having served the Union during the war. Not sure any of this helps you, however, since my book is not available digitally. Perhaps you have a college library nearby that might carry it.

      The reason I asked about your Davis ancestors is because Newt Knight’s grandmother was Keziah Davis, wife of John “Jacky” Knight. The multiracial branch of the Ainsworths, descended from Sampson Ainsworth and his slave, Martha, are related to the Knights through extensive intermarriage with the multiracial descendants of Newt Knight and Rachel Knight.

      I wish you the best on finishing your paper by the assigned date!


  4. Susan Ella Smith was the daughter of Warren Edward Smith, Sr. whose mother was Jennie McGill. She was born in Bezer, Smith County, MS. Warren was the son of William L. Smith. Susan Ella Smith was my grandfather’s sister. His name was also Warren Smith.


  5. The following query was posted by Frank Johnson III on I am cross-posting it here:

    I am doing research on my paternal grandmother Socia Beatrice Knight. She was born in Indianola, Mississippi around 1910. She stated that her father was Joe Knight, White and that her Mother was a combo of African and Native American. She could not produce any documentation but stated that she had a brother Joe Knight Jr and a couple of other siblings. She passed away out here in California circa 1983.
    Is it possible that anyone could be aware of my grandmother?

    Thank you,
    Frank Johnson III


  6. According to my grandmother, Jerolee Ainsworth Smith, Martha Ann was not Native American, but the product of a white slave owner and a black slave. She was sold and brought to Mississippi when she was about fourteen years old. My grandmother grew up living next door to her Aunt Charity Ainsworth Shelby and they did not disassociate themselves from their black kin. Her appearance comes from the racial mixing of black and white, not Native American. I realize that you could easily mistake her for having “Indian blood”, but I just wanted to set the record straight according to what I was told by my grandmother. I have asked several of my cousins on the Knight side to have DNA tests done, but have yet to see one.


    • Yvonne,
      My husband is the grandson of a Knight located in Shubuta MS. I have been trying to research his family through and via what I have been told. I did a DNA test on him. There was also one done on his uncle before he passed. His GGF name was Thomas Knight. Thomas’ mother was Viny Harris and his father was Wilson Knight. Thomas had 2 children with Queenie Reed Mills. I wonder if there is a connection.


  7. Thanks, Yvonne! Yes, DNA tests would be helpful at this point, with all the differing opinions among descendants.



  8. Wonderful site! I am hoping you can help me! I keep hitting at wall with my great-great-grandmother. Her name was Rosan Shelby born around 1840. She was living in Smith county in 1880 a widow with three children. One of them is named Marthy. She has more children whom one is called Dock. I think they are related somehow. Do you have anything on Rosan?


  9. In my research, I have come across Rosan Shelby and Dock Shelby of Smith County, MS but cannot find a connection to my family. Charity Ainsworth married a George Shelby of Jasper County, MS who was listed in the 1870 and1880 Census for Jasper County, MS as George Shuck. Sometime during the twenty years between 1880 and 1900, they changed their surname from Shuck to Shelby.


    • Thanks for the reply. Do you know where in your research you came across Rosan and Dock Shelby? Dock is also part of my family, He is her son. But I’ve yet to find a document that lists them together. I just have the 1880’s census that lists her with Willis, Ida, and Seazer. Thanks in advance! Your research in fascinating btw!


  10. renegadesouth: My great grandmother’s sister was Serena Turner Knight. I have been following several interesting writings about this family. My mother’s family lived in Ellisville Ms., many relatives still live in the Laurel area. I have a cousin Betty Musgrove who lives there and she is very familar with the history of the Turner’s and Knight’s. My grandmother Lou Shows Robertson and Betty spent many hours talking about these characters mentioned in all the books written about Newt Knight and Free State Jones County. You may be aware of the movie being done in Jones County about Newt Knight with Matthew McConnahey play the part of Newt. The movie may already started picking sites to film as it should be out sometime this year.

    I look forward to hearing from you about this topic. Thanks, Johnnie Taylor


    • Hi Johnnie, thanks for your comment. Nice to meet a relative of Serena’s! (Also, a Shows–my grandmother was Naoma Shows). The upcoming movie is exciting; if you visit the first page of this blog, you’ll see posts regarding its casting of Matt McConaughey as Newt and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Rachel. The filming will be done in Louisiana, and the movie will likely be released in early 2016.


  11. Hello Johnnie Taylor,

    I found your comment interesting because while I am a descendant of the Knight family, I am also a descendant of the Musgrove family. While many Knight’s and Musgroves intermarried, I descend from John “Matt” Knight and Rose Musgrove highlighted in Victoria Bynum’s Renegade South story. What family does your aunt Betty Musgrove descend?


    • Eunice, Thanks for getting back to me. My cousin Betty Musgrove was married to Leroy Musgrove from outside Laurel and not familar with his family background. My mother and Betty’s mother were sisters from my grandmother Lou Shows Robertson and her mother was a Turner. I also had a aunt who was married to another set of Musgroves. I believe we are somehow related to the Knight’s too. Maybe I can get Betty to contact you concerning her husbands family background. Thanks for your info and hope to speak with you again. P.S. I don’t check my emails that often and my replies will be slow sometimes.


  12. My mother is Tinia Mae Knight. Her parents were Robert (Bob)Knight and Melvina Jones. I believe his dad was Andy Knight and I’ve heard of this Newt Knight and all the mean stories too. Tinia was born in SoSo, MS and is now 86 y/o. I am her 2nd daughter Diane Gildon (Gavin) and I’d love for someone to contact me with more of this family history for my Mother. 815.573.6472 Thank you.


    • Apparently, I subscribed to this. However, I don’t remember. While it’s good to go back as far as we can, since we’ll never know where our beginnings are from. We were stripped of that right, as well as our language. To me, this is just a reminder of slavery and NOTHING was good about our ancestors being rapped, murdered and degraded. For that matter, where are the proceeds from the movie? Right! My aunt died last July 2016 and she would’ve been 103 in October 2016. Her name was Luevader Knight and she still had her good mind. She also told us that the Newt Knight clan was not nice (she named a few she actually knew) and I believe her. I just don’t see the “glorification”……


      • Diane,

        You are certainly right that “NOTHING was good about our ancestors being raped, murdered and degraded.” It’s my position as a historian that the story of slavery, Civil War and Reconstruction must be told for that very reason. This is my profession; I work hard at it and I spent many years, much of it at my own expense, learning the skills of a historian.

        I did not make the movie, but I imagine that those who did feel the same about their craft as I do about mine. Are you suggesting that they should not be paid for their labor? Or perhaps you merely object to all the millions you believe they made. Well, let me assure you that in regard to THIS movie, no one got rich. The seriousness of the topic apparently was not entertaining enough for most of the public—The Free State of Jones was a box office bomb, and it LOST money for the studio and the director.

        As for the Newt Knight band not being “nice”–well, of course they were not nice! This was wartime and they were engaged in an uprising against the Confederacy, which they believed to be an illegitimate government. Nor does my book, The Free State of Jones “glorify” them. Rather, it tells the story of the uprising from THEIR perspective. They were no doubt brutal in their attempt to defeat the Confederacy, but they also came down on the right side of history in that effort. The Civil War was caused by slavery, after all, and the Confederacy was formed to save slavery and to expand it. The Knight band, like many guerrilla groups throughout the South, was unwilling to fight a slaveholders’ war, and they ultimately helped to defeat the Confederacy. It’s an important history, and I’m glad that more people know about it, thanks to the movie.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.