Multiracial Families/Communities

The Life and Death of Davis Knight after State vs. Knight (1948)

By Vikki Bynum

Courthouse in downtown Clinton,  Feliciana Parish, Louisiana

Courthouse in downtown Clinton, Feliciana Parish, Louisiana. The Davis Knight trial will be filmed here for the movie, Free State of Jones.

The Ellisville Courthouse, Ellisville, Mississippi, where Davis Knight was tried and found guilty of miscegenation.

The Ellisville Courthouse, Ellisville, Mississippi, where Davis Knight was tried and found guilty of miscegenation. Photo by Victoria Bynum.

Davis Knight, the great-grandson of the infamous “Free State of Jones” guerrilla, Newt Knight, became the centerpiece of his own drama some 25 years after the death of his notorious ancestor. Although Davis was descended from Newt and his wife, Serena, both of whom were white, he was also the great-grandson of Rachel Knight, a former slave of Newt’s grandfather. And although Davis was white in appearance, because of his descent from Rachel, he was defined as black by his white neighbors. Some of those neighbors did not take kindly to Davis Knight’s marriage in 1946 to Junie Lee Spradley, a local white woman. In 1948, Davis ended up in court, accused of having married across the color line (a crime in several states until 1967). Despite a vigorous defense by Attorney Quitman Ross, a jury pronounced Davis guilty. Convicted of miscegenation, the Ellisville Court sentenced him to five years in Mississippi’s notorious Parchman prison.

Attorney Ross immediately appealed the decision on grounds the court had failed to prove that Davis had 1/8th or more African ancestry, and won his case. The Mississippi State Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s decision and remanded Davis’s case for retrial–a retrial that never took place. In legal terms, the High Court ruled in this important case, the “one drop rule” did not determine one’s racial identity, regardless of social custom. Davis Knight thus escaped going to prison and, for the rest of his life, lived as a white man.

It turned out, however, that the rest of Davis’s life would be quite short, as was the marriage that he suffered to defend in court. Some years ago, researcher Ken Welch of Soso, Mississippi, provided me copies of Davis’s divorce and death records. They show that in 1954, five years after his Supreme Court victory, Davis sued Junie Lee for divorce on grounds she had abandoned their home in 1951. The couple had no children, and Davis claimed that Junie Lee had given birth to another man’s child during their separation. The marriage was officially dissolved on July 20, 1954.

Soon after, Davis moved to Channelview, Texas (near Houston), where in 1959 he would lose his life in a fishing accident. Before that tragic day, Davis married for a second time, to Evelyn (Evie) Wilburn, and worked as a painter’s helper for Olin Mathieson Chemical Corporation. When I interviewed Ethel Knight (author of Echo of the Black Horn) in 1992, she told me that Davis had abandoned Junie Lee for a rich, white, older woman who lived in Texas. If Davis’s divorce testimony is to be believed, however, it was Junie Lee who left him. And while his new wife, Evie, was fourteen years older than him, and white, I have found no evidence that she was rich. Evie had been twice divorced, and had two sons, Joel G. Hill, age 31, and James W. McDonald, 24, who were closer in age than she to her new husband.

On the morning Davis Knight died, he had just embarked on a fishing trip at the Sheldon Reservoir with his stepson, Joel. According to Joel, he first waded and floated out to a small island where the two men intended to fish. Davis followed, carrying his fishing rod and wearing a life preserver. As he entered into deeper water, the preserver slipped upward and he was momentarily submerged, causing him to panic and thrash about. Several fisherman came to his aid, but by then Davis had been under the water for 3 to 5 minutes and could not be revived. An autopsy ruled his death an accidental drowning.

Davis’s Texas death certificate described him as a 34-year-old white man. Although the Mississippi Supreme Court had granted him the same status, the “one drop rule” of race meant that most people who knew his roots would never accept him as white. So, like many kinfolk before him, Davis escaped the dangers and degradation of being labeled a “black” man by leaving the state. For him, that escape proved all too brief.

For a historical overview of the “one drop rule” that includes a discussion of the Davis Knight trial, see my post, “Racial Identity and the Law,” here on Renegade South.

Note: This post was revised on 10/20/2014. For a full history of Davis Knight’s miscegenation trial, see Victoria Bynum, “‘White Negroes’ in Segregated Mississippi: Miscegenation, Racial Identity, and the Law,” The Journal of Southern History (Vol. LXIV, No. 2, May 1998), subsequently republished in Victoria Bynum, The Free State of Jones (2001).

19 replies »

    • Jon,
      I appreciate, as ever, your taking time to comment. It was a hard story to write, and I think that’s why I did not do so sooner. One expects a different ending to such an important ordeal, but life and death take their own paths.

  1. Mrs. Bynum,

    My name is W. J. Knight, I am interested in finding out more about Newton Knight. If it isn’t a problem could you please contact me through my email? Newton Knight was my great great uncle. His brother Albert (born 1833) was my great great grandfather. One of my patrol men is Newton Knight’s great great grandson. We are interested in locations that they might have some importance. Thanks ahead of time.

    • Mr. Knight, I read your comments about the log and the cave near Reddoch’s ferry. I have been casually exploring the Leaf by kayak lately and I would love (LOVE) to have more specific detail on the location of these things if you can provide it. That part of the river is super shallow, so “just north of the ferry” could mean hours of paddling and looking if I can’t get some specifics :)

  2. My thanks to Deborah Jiang Stein for taking the time to comment. Be sure and visit the Huffington Post to read her personal and insightful observations about multiracialism.

    I’m certain you’re right, Deborah, that there are many, many more stories like those of the Knight family waiting to be shared.


  3. I just read ” The State of Jones” which covers the Knight Family from early 1800 thru the 1960s. It gives extensive details about the family,, is a real eye opener to a historian such as myself.
    This book was purchased thru for .04 cents, plus shipping of 3.99 an was well worth the costs,, I did not stop reading it daily, until completed, then did a Google for Davis Knight v. State of Mississippi, which gave me this site an many others.
    Doug Traylor educator, historian..

  4. Thanks for your comments, Doug.

    I agree; Davis Knight’s miscegenation trial and his tragically short life is an important historical event and an interesting story as well.

    If you are referring to Stauffer and Jenkins’s book, State of Jones, I recommend that you also read my three-part review of their book on this site:

    Good luck with your historical career!


  5. Doug, if you found “State of Jones” enjoyable and informative, then you are in for a treat. Read Dr. Bynum’s “The Free State of Jones,” the book from which “State of Jones” mined the majority of its contents. Unfortunately, this later book pales in both authenticity, thoroughness, and entertainment value to Bynum’s opus.

  6. At the risk of passing on gossip, i believe the ex-wife of Davis Knight led an equally tragic post-trial life. If I am not mistaken, a woman by the name of “Ms. Johnson” used to walk through downtown Laurel begging for money. My employer often helped her by paying her utiliities or her grocery tab. When she died, in fact, he paid for her to be buried so that she would not have to be buried in a pauper’s grave. “Ms. Johnson” once mentioned that she tried to marry a man (who looked white) but whom the local officials accused of being black, and the marriage was prevented it until it went “all the way to the Supreme Court” and was allowed. Since the Knight trial was the only miscegenation case to reach Mississippi’s Supreme Court, I have assumed that Ms. Johnson is the former Mrs. Davis Knight. Tom Knight, Newt’s son, might have peddled pencils in the same area downtown, outside the old Kress’s building, if the information I have received is correct.

    And to both Mr. Odell and Dr. Bynum, your submissions kept me reading the Review of Jones County for months. I never submitted a letter to the paper because I felt that Mr. Odell captured my sentiments perfectly. Job well done defending honest and earnest research.

    • Very interesting, Hayley! It certainly sounds as though your “Ms Johnson” was Junie Lee Spradley, the woman whose marriage to Davis Knight led to his miscegenation trial. A little research, or perhaps some knowledgable reader, might confirm whether Junie Lee married someone named Johnson after her divorce from Davis. In any case, a very sad story, indeed.

      Thanks also for letting Jon and me know that you read and enjoyed our contributions to the Jones County Review last fall in regard to the Jenkins/Stauffer book. Jon’s satirical essay that got things going in that newspaper was a masterpiece!


  7. Reblogged this on Renegade South and commented:

    With filming of the Free State of Jones soon to begin, and with the announcement that Louisiana’s oldest courthouse, located in downtown Clinton in Feliciana Parish, will be the film site for the Davis Knight miscegenation trial, I’m reblogging the following essay, originally posted in 2009.

  8. Immediately after Davis was declared “white” by the Mississippi Supreme Court, he was skirted quickly out of Mississippi by his relatives to Erie, PA. There are many Knight Families that immigrated to Pennsylvania in the 1940’s after World War II. He became restless with his darker skinned kin and decided to make the move to Texas where several relatives were able to pass for white. Davis was also descended from Lucy Ainsworth Smith, daughter of Sampson Ainsworth and Martha Ann Ainsworth.

  9. “Although Davis was descended from Newt and his wife, Serena, both of whom were white, he was also the great-grandson of Rachel Knight, a former slave of Newt’s grandfather. ”

    Sorry, I don’t understand this. Can you explain? He didn’t have two mothers!

    • It’s not that difficult, and doesn’t require two mothers. Davis Knight was the grandson of Mollie Knight, the daughter of Newt and Serena Knight. That made him their descendant. Mollie knight was married to Jeffrey Knight, who therefore was Davis’s grandfather. Jeffrey Knight’s mother was Rachel Knight; therefore Davis was descended from Rachel as well as from Newt and Serena.

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