The following photograph, I’m sure you’ll agree, is intriguing. Posing together are two women, one of whom appears to be multiracial, the other white. Are they sisters? sisters-in-law? cousins? No one knows for certain, because no one knows exactly who these women are. All that is certain is that they were somehow connected to the Knight family of Jones County, Mississippi.
This photograph embodies the problems faced by authors of biographical studies—that of identifying accurately the subjects of their photos. Simply because a donor identifies a person as so-and-so doesn’t make it so. When that book is published, the author will quickly learn if others disagree with the donor’s opinion! No where is this more evident than in two rival photos published elsewhere on this blog (see here and here), both of which are claimed to be of Rachel Knight. In truth, no one can say definitively that either of the two competing photos is of Rachel. Yvonne Bivins believes that the second photo is Rachel because it fits her grandfather’s description of what she looked like, while Annette Knight has identified the same woman as Martha Ann Knight, her grandmother and a daughter of Rachel’s.
In regard to the first picture, which appeared on the cover of my book, The Free State of Jones, I have long since relinquished my claim that it is Rachel. Yet, while some believe that the photo is of either Anna or Lessie Knight (Rachel’s granddaughters), others, including Dianne Walkup, still believe that it may indeed be Rachel.
To understand why, let’s return to the photo at the top of the page. Dianne believes that the woman on the left is the same woman who appeared on the cover of my book, and that both are Rachel. She and her sister Aggie believe that the woman on the right is Newt Knight’s white wife, Serena. They reason that she looks like a young version of the aged Serena who appears with her husband Newt in a photo taken late in the nineteenth century (see p. 154 of Free State of Jones). Since they also believe that Rachel and Serena came to terms with sharing Newt’s affections, they are not surprised that the women would pose together. It was George Ann’s relationship with Newt after Rachel’s death in 1889, Dianne asserts, that caused Serena to leave Newt’s household (ex-slave Martha Wheeler asserted the same. See p. 159 of Free State of Jones). The fact that Serena moved into the household of her son-in-law, Jeffrey (son of Rachel) and her daughter, Mollie (Jeffrey’s wife), is viewed by Dianne as further proof that Serena was alienated by George Ann’s relationship with Newt, but not from her multiracial family.
Yvonne Bivins believes just as firmly that the above photo is not of Rachel and Serena. Rather, Yvonne believes the woman on the left might be Anna Knight (consistent with other photos of Anna), and that the woman on the right might be Candace Smith Knight, who she identifies as the wife of Anna’s brother, John Howard Knight. Candace Smith was from the multiracial Smith/Ainsworth family. Many members of this family were white-skinned despite their “one drop” of African ancestry. If Yvonne is correct, then, this is a photo of multiracial sisters-in-law.
Clearly, unless a person’s name appears on an old photograph (and even then there’s a chance it’s wrong), or unless there is broad consensus among descendants about who that person is, one has only theories, not facts, to guide in the identification of photographs taken in the late 19th and early 20th century. Sometimes theories will produce consensus, but often they don’t. Given all the uncertainty, is anyone surprised to learn that NO photograph purported to be of Rachel Knight will appear in my forthcoming book, The Long Shadow of the Civil War?!
As always, I welcome your thoughts.