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 that 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).

37 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 :)

    • Hi WJ Knight!!
      I hope you get this or Ms.Vikki get this to you. I am a of Albert Knight Jr. also. He is my great-great-great-grandfather I would love to share any info I or my side of the family has. My grandfather Roney, still remembers his granny Knight talking about all the ‘newt’ band of men, her father was James Morgan Valentine. If your interested please contact me:)

  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.

    Vikki

  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 Amazon.com 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:

    https://renegadesouth.wordpress.com/2009/07/03/the-state-of-jones-by-sally-jenkins-and-john-stauffer-a-review-part-one/

    Good luck with your historical career!

    Vikki

  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!

      Vikki

  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.

      • OK, thanks. To those of us who aren’t intimately acquainted with the family trees, these things are a bit confusing.

  10. Hello,

    I am playing Davis in The Free State Of Jones film. I am traveling to Ellisville tomorrow to get a feel for the actual locations of events. Would much appreciate any advice/tips on places to see, people to visit, etc. also any spots in town that would be considered a “locals” hang-out.

    Thank you,

    Brian Lee Franklin

  11. I will contact you privately, Brian. Meanwhile, I hope readers from Ellisville will offer their advice!

    Vikki Bynum

  12. I can tell you the location of the gravesites of jasper Collins, Serena knight, and amos mclemore. I know where newt and Serena are buried but the gate is usual locked. I have also been to where sals battery is if interested. Enjoy jones county Brian!

  13. At this point, I don’t believe that I will buy a ticket to see the movie, “The Free State of Jones”, not to say that I won’t change my mind, as that’s my prerogative. Instead of excitement, I feel a sense of dread about the movie. I personally don’t understand why Davis needed to be included in the script, especially after my mother’s generation tried to “live it down”. (Perhaps, Vikki can explain it to me.) And, I do not understand why my generation and the ones following are so ready to acknowledge Newton as their great grandpa, especially since he tried so very hard to erase the black from their grandparents’ blood, so to speak. Most of my Grandmother’s generation really thought that he was a scoundrel and a liar and was not proud of his escapades or their relationship to him. The latter being the reasons most of us do not know our history beyond our grandparents. My mother’s generation worked very hard to overcome the embarrassment and shame of the trial. (I have copies of court documents showing in testimony Fan Knight denying that she was “black”. Fan was Rachel’s daughter by Jesse Davis Knight and Jeffrey Earley’s sister.)

    When I began seriously researching my family history, my mother and aunt were still alive as well as several cousins who were all closely related to Davis Knight. In fact, they were his first cousins. When my relatives were run out of the area called Six Town by local whites, they settled in an area where the majority of the people looked white like them. The reason for their flight was a decision to defend the honor of Davis’ mother, Addie, who was molested by a group of white boys. Addie later married Otho Knight, the son of Jeffrey Early Knight and Martha “Mollie” Knight. I related to the readers of this blog that according to family history, Newton wanted to erase the black blood in his descendants by Rachel and George Ann. These children were not raised in the Black community of Soso, but kept fairly isolated from their black kin. My Aunt Octavia Knight said that she was “almost grown” before she knew that she was considered “Negro” and I have deduced that it was only after she became pregnant by a white boy named Lester Welch and could not marry him.

    My mother, who was Davis’ first cousin, was ashamed of her family who “chose” to join the white race and embarrassed that they “wanted to be white”. She was card-carrying member of the NAACP. Onie Knight, daughter of John Howard Knight, married into the Bourn family; all were active leaders in the NAACP. John Madison “Hinchie” Knight’s granddaughter, Jeannette Musgrove, was married to Dr. Charles Smith; long time President of the local NAACP chapter in Forrest County. The KKK continually harassed our neighborhood with nightly cross burnings, hooded nightriders and threats of lynching. All the while, Davis’ father would not let a black person set foot on his property, openly treating them with distain. Listening to “grown folks talking”, I was aware that they were not happy with Otho’s attitude toward black people, an attitude that he undoubtedly picked up from his father, Jeffrey Early Knight.

    I don’t know how much of our family history was taught to Davis and his sisters, but I am aware that Davis knew that some of his relatives were so called “colored”. As a matter of fact, several of his kin who would not or could not pass as white, carried him to Erie, Pennsylvania immediately after the trial to join other relatives and keep him safe. I wasn’t long before he moved to Channelview, Texas his Uncle Charles Madison Knight was living with his family. It should be noted that the Knights that lived in Erie were mostly descended from Harriet Carter Ward whereas the Knights that moved to Texas were abled to “pass for white”.

    • I was just saying how ironic it is that for years people would never admit being related to Newt Knight. Now folks are coming out of the wood work.
      My mother was born in 1916. She grew up in the Calhoun community. She always said a lot of the info in “Echo of the Black Horn” was not true. She said Ethel wrote the book for the money.
      Just another point of view.

      • Another comment that shows how contested the history of Newt Knight is. Thank you, Marsha.

        Vikki Bynum

    • Bivsy, I have that same dread feeling. It could stir up bad feelings on both sides. Since my family still lives on a part of the original land grants in Jones County MS of the Knights. I don’t want our community turned upside down again. It will not affect the defendants that no longer live in MS. I’m just sick of everyone in this country looking down on our state. MS has came a long way since this trial and the escapades of Newt Knight.

      • Kim, neither the trial of Davis Knight nor the “escapades” of Newt Knight have contributed to why so many people have, as you say “looked down” on Mississippi. Most people outside the state know little to nothing about either of those stories (although they are about to hear more with the coming of the movie). Frankly, I think the movie might improve Mississippi’s image.

        Vikki

  14. Thanks, Yvonne (“bivsy”), for sharing your family’s feelings about Newt Knight and about the decision of Davis Knight’s branch of the family to identify as white despite having African as well as European ancestry.

    Racial identity is a complicated and conflicted topic, and it clearly won’t be resolved here. Still, I hope that efforts to discuss it from all sides will help us move toward a broader understanding of racism and its many effects on society. I do not “take sides” with the descendants of Newt and Rachel, regardless of whether they identified as black or white. I will say, however, that I do not adhere to the “one drop rule” of race, which dictates that persons with any amount of African ancestry must identify as black or risk being considered a traitor to their race. “Race”, after all, is governed and perpetuated by political and social definitions, and not by scientific reality. I have discussed this at length on other posts, and will not digress here.

    You asked early in your comments if I can explain why the movie, Free State of Jones, will include the miscegenation trial of Davis Knight in its story. I can only speak for own decision to include the trial in my book of the same name. I did so because it is important to the history of race relations in the United States as well as to the history of Newt and Rachel Knight and the Free State of Jones.

    Vikki Bynum

    • Ms. Bynam,
      I only stated that I felt it could stir up ill feeling in the community, a community that has improved over the last hundred years. Simply a concern I have.

      I did not state the movie would make them look down on MS, I just stating a fact about MS in general. It was a statement dealing with all of MS’s past events.
      In my travels I find that outside of MS —there is persons that still believes we don’t have indoor plumbing. Just another fact.

      Echo of the Black Horn I believe is listed as fiction, due to E.Knight having to fill in the gaps between her book/story’s time frame. One of my aunts, (my Pilgrim side) knew her and that’s what she told my aunt. My granny Knight told us many stories about her childhood, when asked about E.Knight’s book she stated ‘it was not all true, it had be embellished to help the book sell”.
      However she didn’t specify which parts, my mother may know more but that’s the extent of my knowledge about her book, other than reading the book:)

      *None of my comments are meant in a negative context.” And ‘escapades’ is one of the terms my granny used when talking about her uncle Newt Knight. I have worked on my family tree since 2001, and I have always acknowledged Newt Knight was a relative on the larger family tree but not my direct line—Albert Knight Jr. (his older brother by 4 years) is my direct Knight line, but I understand more people are willing to talk about their family tree with all the buzz of the upcoming movie. I’ve always said if a resident of Jones county has been here at least three generations back, that they are related to the Knights in some way:) The descendants of John Jackie Knight are all over the U.S. and a few other countries.

      • Hi Kim,

        Thanks for your comment. I regret that I sounded angry in my response to your post. I tend to have a visceral response to any suggestion that perhaps history should be suppressed if it makes people uncomfortable or stirs up ill-feelings. Very little history of any importance would ever be published if we used criteria such as that! But I realize that’s not what you meant to say.

        I agree with you, in fact, that the coming movie will likely generate some feelings of division and even anger among a portion of the population, both in and outside of Jones County. Those feelings are already there, waiting to be stirred. A certain level of disagreement over the movie’s interpretation of the story seems inevitable.

        For these reasons, I truly hope the movie recreates the essence of a community civil war, and doesn’t simply offer a dramatic story told from the perspective of one “heroic” man. As for the Davis Knight trial, it will be wonderful if Brian Lee Franklin exhibits a feel for what Davis Knight may have felt during his moment in history. To his credit, Mr. Franklin appears to be seeking the information he needs to develop his character.

        In any case, it’s fascinating to watch the movie unfold!

        Vikki

  15. Some further thoughts about Newt Knight and Davis Knight: What if we quit thinking of Newt Knight as either a “hero” or a “scoundrel”? What if instead we view him as a complex human being who lived his life as he saw fit, for better or worse for those around him? In my judgment, we will learn far more about the horrors of the Civil War and about the families that joined Newt’s uprising if we view his story within its historical setting, recognizing that Newt made his decisions during times of extraordinary stress.

    And what if we quit viewing race as an either/or, black or white issue, and instead recognize that people often choose to identify themselves in ways that best suit their own needs and abilities? Should we blame those mixed-ancestry Knights who lived in the segregated South—a South, as Yvonne describes, that long tolerated lynchings of people of color who dared assert their rights—for identifying (when they could) as white? Isn’t it more important that we understand the white supremacist power structure that forced people with any degree of African ancestry to either deny that ancestry or live a life of second-class citizenship?

    I would hope that we could recognize that during the Civil War ordinary Southern men struggled as both Confederate and Union soldiers to survive a war not of their making. So did their families on the home front. I would also hope that we could admire the efforts of people, such as Yvonne’s kinfolk, who chose to identify with their black ancestry and work for greater civil rights for all people—but without condemning those who did not, or could not, do so.

    Vikki Bynum

  16. Very interesting. My dad’s family is originally from adjoining Wayne County Ms. Mothers family was from Lincoln County Ms. (between Columbia & Brookhaven). Both come from mixed race backgrounds. As children from California in the 1960’s our parents would take us “back home” to visit Mississippi. I remember in those days/ areas seeing other mixed race folks was not that uncommon.

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