The Free State of Jones

Jonathan Odell on Rachel Knight and Mixed-Race relationships in the Post-Civil War South

Jonathan Odell has written extensively about his native state of Mississippi and is the author of the novel, The View From Delphi The following post was adapted from comments Jon made on Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory blog.

Jonathan Odell

Jonathan Odell

After interviewing many of the “Black Knight” descendants, one thing I’ve learned that concerns them is how easily whites are convinced to idealize the “romantic” relationship between Newt Knight and the ex-slave Rachel. I don’t think they would agree with a commenter who, as quoted on Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory blog, wrote that “it’s less problematic” that Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, authors of State of Jones,  “sexed up a romantic relationship for the sake of a film” then if they generally misread the meaning of Newt Knight and the Free State of Jones.

Black women in the days following the Civil War were at the bottom of the heap power-wise. Whether Knight’s assumed romantic feelings for Rachel were reciprocated is missing the point. We will never know, because in the context of that era, it was irrelevant. Good for her if she did, but for black mothers in those days, romantic love was not the driving motivation. Who they loved was immaterial to surviving. She had to find the least worst choice that would keep her and her children alive. Sexing up the relationship for a more satisfying (and modern) ending, further obscures the wrenching sacrifices made and amazing courage displayed by black women of that era.

Just another thought. I was raised in Jones County and have been fascinated to find that the Knights were not the only family line that diverged down two paths after the Civil War. Several former slave owners sired black offspring, and in this part of the country, many thought that even your black children were to be cared for. Many acres of land are still owned by descendants of slaves who were bequeathed the parcel by a white father. But in none of these incidents do the direct black descendants assume that anything like romantic love played a part. According to them black women after the War were as much sexual slaves to white men as they were before the war. And interestingly enough, neither do they call it rape. “Taking somebody to the barn,” as they commonly refer to the occurrence, was just the nature of things. I guess that’s why context is everything. Projecting 21st century notions of romantic love onto 19th century southern interracial relations, as Jenkins and Stauffer have done, won’t take us far toward understanding the lives of black, multiracial, or for that matter white women.

Jonathan Odell

4 replies »

  1. Yesterday, I tuned to C-SPAN2 BookTV’s program and watched the presentation made by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer about their new book THE STATE OF JONES. Initially, I was intrigued with their presentation and, in fact, was so interested in this book that I immediately went to Amazon’s web site to learn more about it by typing in “Jones County Mississippi” in the Search box. Imagine my surprise when your book appeared as well.

    I was immediately puzzled by the fact that two books had been published within a fairly short time span about a topic that is rather specialized—I wondered to myself, “If one book has been published on this topic in 2002, what enormous cache of material would have emerged less than seven years later to warrant another big book on this topic and along the same lines?”

    As I read the reviews, and later the blogs, it became very apparent to me what had happened. Dr. Bynum, I am very happy you have set the record straight!
    While I am not a historian in terms of profession, I definitely have a deep and abiding respect for the truth of factual research. So, Dr. Bynum, let me say that after accidentally “stumbling across” your book title yesterday, I can hardly wait for Amazon to send your book to me!

    As an African-American genealogy buff with roots in Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Louisiana, I am intrigued with this concept of Unionists/guerrillas in the slaveholding South, and I am anxious to learn more about it. I just love discovering America’s “hidden history”! I have spent almost 30 years researching my own family; and as you might guess, there are many, many tangled webs that include the themes of slavery, interracial relationships, mixed race children, the Civil War, Jim Crow, Civil Rights, and on and on.

    I see that you are planning to release another book next year, which expands on this topic of Unionists. Your earlier book and the upcoming title both reminded me of some family research I unearthed a few years ago. My great grandfather, who was white and born in Sumter County, Alabama, had at least six uncles (his mother’s brothers) who fought in the Civil War (Alabama, Arkansas, and Louisiana). Three of them never returned from the War.

    Based on my initial research, I’d assumed all six fought for the Confederacy. I was truly shocked when I discovered that one brother, Richard Nicholas Newton, Jr., had joined the Union Army! I was able to secure the pension papers that had been filed by his widow and learned he had been a private in the 1st Louisiana Volunteer Calvary Scouts in Company D. Captain A. Hawthorn was the commander of this unit. Richard Jr. died from measles on July 18, 1864, in Banks Hospital in New Orleans.

    Richard Jr. and his wife were in Kemper County, Mississippi, before the start of the Civil War and later moved to Rapides Parish, Louisiana, where he apparently joined the war effort on the Union side. I am just wondering if you have uncovered any Unionist efforts in Louisiana as well?

    Finally, if you are ever want to research mixed race families, murder, property rights, and intrigue in northern Louisiana, the black DeGraffenried family story is one that is just waiting to be told. I am related to a member of this family, and their roots can be traced to the DeGraffenrieds in North Carolina, Virginia, and Switzerland. The white patriarch of the black branch was murdered in the 1920s in Caldwell Parish, and the murder has never been solved. The family legend that has been passed down points to the story of Edwin Lafayette DeGraffenried planning to give his black children some of his land, but he was killed before he had a chance to finalize this transaction.

    Much success on your upcoming book title, and I look forward to reading your account of the Jones County Mississippi saga!

    Take care,

    Gwen Hester, Ed.D.


  2. Your family history is fascinating, Gwen, and I will be getting back to you. So glad you searched beyond STATE OF JONES and found my book; you’d never have guessed it existed listening to Ms. Jenkins and Prof. Stauffer go on at the Harvard Bookstore about their “discovery” of the Free State of Jones.



  3. Being a native of Jones County I personally resent the revisionist history in “The State of Jones” book by Jenkins and Stauffer.

    Clearly, the only book in my opinion of this incident that is accurate; and factual is Dr. Bynum’s. (Sorry Ethel; your book “Echo of the Black Horn” was a revisionist book as well)

    Keep up the good work and accuracy Dr. Bynum!

    Mitch Chance


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