By Vikki Bynum
Newt Knight’s political career was short-circuited by his open embrace of his mixed-race descendants. The essay, “Negotiating Boundaries of Race and Gender in Jim Crow Mississippi,” which appears as chapter six in The Long Shadow of the Civil War, explores the legacy of that decision.
This essay extends the Knight saga well into the twentieth century by focusing on several Knight women, but especially the sisters, Anna, Gracie, and Lessie, who personified the struggles and triumphs of being female as well as multiracial in the segregated South. The centerpiece of the essay is Anna Knight, who carved out a remarkable international career as a teacher and a Seventh-Day Adventist missionary who spent many years in India.
Anna’s steely determination shaped the course of many of her kinfolks’ lives as well as her own. In 1898, she established an Adventist-sponsored school and two Sunday schools in the Knight community. Under her tutelage, many of her relatives gained educations and converted to Seventh-Day Adventism.
While education and religious faith were important tools for combating racial prejudice and segregation, other Knights, including Anna’s sister, Lessie, opted instead to identify with their European or Native-American heritage, and to ignore or deny African ancestry. Under segregationist terms, they were “passing,” but under their own terms, they were choosing the ancestry that fit their self-image and afforded them the same opportunities for self-fulfillment that “white” Americans enjoyed.
For my legal overview of the “one drop rule” of race and its effects on racial identity, click here.