Part 3: Yvonne Bivins on the History of Rachel Knight

Rachel Knight


Sondra Yvonne Bivins


Rachel’s Children Fathered by Jesse Davis Knight 

      Slaves had few legal rights, least of all to marry and have children. Just two years after arriving on Jackie Knight’s place, Rachel became the slave mistress of his son, Jesse Davis Knight.  Illicit interracial sexual relationships were not unusual in the antebellum South in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Jesse Davis Knight’s liaison with Rachel resulted in the birth of three known children: Jeffery Earley, Edmund, and Frances.

      Early in 1858, Rachel gave birth to a son, her third child.  Jeffery Earley was born a slave, owned by his grandfather, John “Jackie”  Knight. By law, the status of the mother determined the status of the children, so Rachel and her children were his property.   After slavery, while still a teenager, Jeffery married Martha Ann Eliza Jane, “Mollie,” the daughter of Serena and Newton Knight. The rumor mill started immediately, with claims that Newt forced his daughter to marry the former slave boy who in physical appearance was nearly white and who after all shared the same grandfather.  To local whites it was just impossible for a white girl to become attracted to and fall in love with a Negro; however, to the family this was just the case.  Jeffery and Mollie had grown up working and playing together on Newton’s farm.  Newton was well aware of this, and so he determined to erase any vestige of Negro in both Rachel’s and George Ann’s children.

      To the union of Jeffery and Mollie were born the following children: Ollie Jane (1883); Charles Madison (1886); Lawrence Larkin (1887); Altimara (1890); Leonard Ezra(1892); Chauncie Omar (1897); and Otho (1900). In 1890, Jeffery had an outside affair with Newton’s youngest daughter, Cora Ann, and fathered a son named Billy (1891).  In March 1817, two months after Mollie died from uterine cancer, he married Susan Ella Smith.  J. E. lived and died in the Six Town Community and did not associate socially with Blacks.

      Edmond was born on February 8, 1861 two months prior to the first shots fired at Ft. Sumter, SC.  He died when he was about sixteen or seventeen years old.

      Frances, who was called Fan, was born March 18, 1863 and married Newt’s white son George Madison, “Matt,” in Dec 1878. She had nine children before he deserted her for a white cousin named Francis Smith.  Fan later married an itinerate preacher named Dock Howze from Clarke County, MS.  In 1914, she denied under oath that she was black. It is possible, but not proven, that Dock Howze was a part-Choctaw whose given name was Benson Howze. 

      According to family stories, Jeffrey Early and Fan both had deep-seated issues with being defined as “Negroes.” Although Fan had delicate features, she could not pass for a white person, so she claimed to be mixed with French and Native American.  All of Jeffrey Early’s children by Newton’s daughter Mollie married white, almost white, or to relatives to avoid being classified as Negroes. They were raised as white in an isolated environment and had difficulty being accepted by either whites or blacks.  Their situation reminds me of the song that Kermit the Frog sang about “It’s Not Easy Being Green.”

Rachel’s Children Fathered by Newton Knight 

            The exslave Martha Wheeler said it best.  Children of white fathers were given privileges that other former slaves did not have.  As soon as Newton’s children were old enough, the indoctrination began.  Newt indoctrinated them with an elitist attitude that made them believe they were somehow better than the average black because of their white blood. He helped build a school in the community and attempted to send his children by Rachel to that school.  When the local whites rejected them, it is said that he burned it down. 

      Martha Ann Knight was born August 15, 1866.  She had long, bushy hair and light complexion, café au lait, or coffee with cream color.  She married Samuel Knight whose parents were Daniel Thomas Knight, Newt’s cousin, and Harriet Carter, another of John Knight’s slaves.  Martha and Samuel had four children: Sidney, Amos, Viola Ode and Senia.  Martha and Samuel encouraged their children to marry someone of their own kind.  All except Senia married a cousin. Senia fell in love with and married a black man named Robert Johnson.  The couple eventually had to move away to avoid harassment. 

         John Stewart, born in May 1868, was believed to be homosexual by family members and never married. Anyone breaking the peace in the family was accused of acting like Stewart. Living alone, he was brutally hacked to death in 1920 by locals looking for money. 

      John Floyd was born in 1871. His first wife was a white girl named Sophronia Cox. He married her in 1890.  The marriage was witnessed by her brother Richard C. Cox.   There is no record of Floyd’s marriage to Lucy Ainsworth Smith.  Quill Anderson stated that his family moved to the Soso area around 1895.  Floyd and Lucy had three children: William Wilder (1895), Ivy Jane (1898) and Octavia “Tavy” (1900).  Floyd died in 1942 after suffering a stroke. He is buried in the cemetery of Shady Grove Church in the Kelly Settlement Community.

      Augusta Ann “Gustan” was born April 22, 1873. After the death of her mother, she lived with several of her siblings, the last of whom was Martha Ann. Gustan married William Watts of Lamar County, MS in 1906.  Her children attended Oakwood College in Huntsville, AL.

      John “Hinchie” Madison was born in 1875. Hinchie married Lucy Ainsworth’s daughter, Mary Florence Magdalene “Maggie” Smith in 1893. Their marriage is recorded the white Marriage Record Book at the Ellisville Court House. Hinchie was a prosperous farmer.  His fifteen children mostly remained in the Soso community or in Mississippi, with a few moving to California in the 1950s. 

      With the exception of John Floyd during his brief marriage to Sophronia Cox, none of Rachel’s children fathered by Newton passed for white.  

 Open Secrets

      In the antebellum South and after the War, white men believed and accepted that it was a natural rite of passage to manhood to sexually exploit black women, which resulted in families of mixed race children like those of Rachel Knight.   Everyone in the slave community knew who fathered Rachel’s children, but it was not openly discussed.  Since she was raised from birth to be a slave, Rachel was aware that she did not own her own body; she was property and did not have the right to reject sexual advances. The white woman on the other hand was expected to be a loving and dutiful wife, an affectionate mother, and subservient to her husband. It was easy for her to blame the slave for her husband or son’s indiscretion. In the South, white women were powerless and little more than servants, too. Unlike today, divorcing a husband who had extramarital relationships was frowned upon and not an easy to obtain. The white mistress often punished the slave woman for her husband’s wrong-doings, telling herself that the powerless slave seduced her husband, or even demanding that the slave be sold to remove the temptation.

      There remains to this day a hush-hush “open secret” and outright denial of past race-mixing in the South by slave masters. After emancipation, Newt, like many fathers of mixed race families, provided land and financial assistance to his off-spring which resulted sometimes in the development of elitist attitudes among them and resentment by neighbors, both black and white. Often when a mixed race person was successful in any endeavor, whites would exclaim that it was their “white blood.” In general, after the Civil War blacks were treated with callous contempt by whites; however, children fathered by their former masters were given a certain amount of protection from local harassment that lasted as long as the white father lived. The descendants of Rachel Knight, who were neither accepted nor openly rejected by their white and black neighbors, came under attack after Newt Knight died in 1922. Two of Fan Knight’s grandchildren, Rachel Dorothy and Fred Nolan, were poisoned by local whites in the early twenties, while Fan and Dock Howze both died under mysterious circumstances in 1916.  It should be noted that Newton was not the only white man in Jones and neighboring counties committing miscegenation; the others simply did not openly flaunt their relationships. 

Rachel Dorothy Knight, daughter of Mat Knight (son of Newt and Serena) and Fannie Knight (daughter of Jesse Davis and Rachel Knight). Collection of Ardella Knight Barrett. Rachel Dorothy Knight, daughter of Mat Knight (son of Newt and Serena) and Fannie Knight (daughter of Jesse Davis and Rachel Knight). Collection of Ardella Knight Barrett.


Slave Narrative of Martha Wheeler,  former slave of John “Jackie” Knight  

      In the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), to interview former slaves to preserve a picture of the African-American experience with slavery.   Martha Wheeler was interviewed in the Hebron neighborhood when she was 86 years old.  She states in the interview that she was one of Jacky Knight’s slaves born on his place and at the age of eight, was sold Elizabeth Coleman Knight after his death.

      The following is what she had to say about Newt, Rachel and George Ann:

“For many years the Knights seldom married outside of their family, but Newt and his family were the only ones to mix extensively with the Negroes. Rachel was considered his woman, then he moved her to his place and her daughter, Georgiann, took her place and separated him from his wife, who went out and lived, until her death a few years ago, among her children. He never married the Negro but brought up a family of seven with her at his old home place and died among them. He is buried in Jasper County half way between Stringer and Soso, one mile west of the road. His Negro children were given advantages and are said by many to be handsome. One girl lives in the old home. Another is high in school circles and served as a missionary to Japan and a third married a white man from other parts and has never been back home. His wife is buried at Palestine Church, three miles from Laurel on the Bay Springs road, now U. S. Highway 15. Newt’s parents, Mason and Albert, are buried at Hebron cemetery right at Solon Huff’s house. Their graves are probably at the beginning of the cemetery.” 

 Embracing My One Drop

After being questioned by a friend, I had to take a bit of time to reflect on why I choose to embrace my “one drop” of African blood and must admit that it has been an emotional reflection. It would be very difficult to believe that I am African American if I did not tell you so.

When I began researching my family line, something or someone kept tugging at me to keep digging for the truth.  I knew that once I published my ancestry, it would cause some anxiety and denial from some of my relatives.  I felt a deep sense of needing to connect with my ancestor and became curious to know just who that woman was that survived the anguishing trip from the shores of Africa and endured the horrors of slavery, never-ending work, and rape. I envisioned that she was young, strong  and slender with a coal black complexion and kinky hair–not like the character that Ethel Knight described in Echo of the Black Horn, which is the only description of Rachel that exists other than what I was told about her.  It seems to me that she was calling me to set the record straight, because so many of her descendents had either denied her existence or claimed she was something other than a strong black woman.

If I could meet her mother, I would want to know where she was born, the places she lived, when she was abducted and when and by whom she was captured.  Did she come directly to the New World or did she get broken in the Caribbean Islands?  How many generations passed before Rachel was born?  These are questions that will forever remain unanswered because my family lineage stops with a bill of sale when she was purchased by John “Jackie” Knight. 

  As a child, I grew up in an environment where I was instilled with middle class values and taught to be proud of my racial heritage.   I was taught to value honest work and an education and not the color of my skin or any other physical attributes.  My mother made many sacrifices for us, never missing a day of work in 32 years in order that we might go to college. She was a great role model. 

Mary Ann Smith Dodds, mother of Yvonne Bivins. Collection of Yvonne Bivins. Mary Ann Smith Dodds, mother of Yvonne Bivins. Collection of Yvonne Bivins.

      I remember that my grandmother was often asked why she chose to be black by whites.  She would boldly say that she chose to be black because if she were white, she’d be poor white and would rather be a dog.  She didn’t think too highly of poor whites.  According to her, they had been white and free all their lives and no reason to be poor. My Grandfather just quietly accepted his lot.

Note: This is the final installment of Yvonne Bivins’s history of Rachel Knight. My thanks to Yvonne for sharing her research with Renegade South.

23 replies »

  1. I really enjoy reading about the knight families. I hope you all will continue doing research and writing about interracial families.

    • Gertrude,

      Thank you so much for your kind words, and hopefully I’ll soon be posting another historical essay by Yvonne!


      • Yes and no. John “Jackie” Knight had a large family and lots of slaves. After emancipation, slaves who had no surnames usually took on the surname of their owners. This was because that is how they were referred, e.g. Knight’s Negro. In his Will, John Knight left three female slaves plus their children to his children: Morning, Harriet and Rachel. These females were the mothers of the Knights in Soso and Jones County and descended from sons of John Knight. Of interest to you, is Harriet Carter. So, all the Knights, black and white, who are descended from John Knight are related.

  2. Wow !!

    I stumbled across this information about my ancestors and am blown away. I have pictures with names on them of who I thought were “white people”. I now know that they are part of my family history. Now the puzzel is beginning to take shape thanks to your good work.

    P.S. – Viola Ode Knight and Luther KNight were my grandparents

  3. Hello Vincent,
    My name is Dale Knight. I am the son of Udell and Gladys Rae McMillin Knight of the Soso community. Luther Knight is my father’s uncle and the brother of my grandfather, Robert “Bob” Knight. Both are the offsprings of Andy Knight. Just like you, I am fasinated with the rich history of the Knight family. As a young boy, I used to go over Uncle Luther’s house and watch him plow his mule and tend his garden. A lot of people get tight lipped when they hear that Uncle Luther and Aunt Ode were first cousins. That was the way things were. However, Yvonne has done a masterful job by researching and outing the real, complex and sometimes uncomfortable history of our families. The younger generations just want to know the truth so it can be properly passed down to future Knight relatives. Keep it coming Yvonne!

    Dale Knight

  4. Great job! Looking forward to some time in Soso this summer. I am the granddaughter of Haywood Knight, his father was Hugh Knight. Haywood moved to the gulf coast with his wife and children in 1951.

  5. Greetings, can anyone tell me how I can obtain Martha Wheeler’s slave narratives? I have searched but to no avail. Thanks in advance.

    • Mr. Duckworth,

      The ex-slave narratives are online, but I read Martha Wheeler’s interview at my university college library. The published slave narrative volumes that it’s part of are carried by almost all college libraries and many public libraries. Look for: George P. Rawick, ed. The American Slave: a Composite Autobiography. Supplement, series 1, vol. 10, Mississippi Narratives, pt. 5 (Greenwood Press, 1972), pp. 2263-64.

      Much of Martha’s interview was never published, but may still be read at the Mississippi State Archives in Jackson, where it is contained in the Unpublished WPA Records, Record Group #60, volume 315.

      Good luck with your search.

    • If you would share your email address with me through Vikki, I will send a copy to you. I copied the narrative when it was on the ancestry.com website. It has since been removed or I just can’t remember where it is located on the website.

      • Thanks a bunch😉 Email sent😉 As usual Yvonne, you are so gracious with sharing information!

    • Mr. Ducksworth,

      That’s great to know! Martha left one of the most important contemporary accounts that I drew on for writing The Free States of Jones! Hope you locate her interviews without too much trouble. The unpublished sections are well worth the search in the unpublished WPA papers in Jackson.



  6. I can’t find any additional information about Martha Wheeler! I have a Martha Ann Wheeler that pops up in my genealogy research but I want to be sure it’s her before I jump the gun. Did they collect any more information on her?

    • Jessica,

      If by “they,” you mean the WPA (Works Projects Administration), the interview conducted with Martha Wheeler by Addie West was fairly extensive. Only part of it was published in the ex-slave narratives (George Rawick, The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography). To read the entire interview (which I quoted from in Free State of Jones) you should visit the State Archives in Jackson, MS. The longer version of the interview, in which Wheeler describes the Confederacy’s execution of Ben Knight, is contained there in the records of the “U.S. Works Projects Administration, Record Group 60,” vol. 315, Jones County.

      Good luck with your research.


  7. Rachel Knight is my great great grandmother. My father’s name is John Floyd Crosby who’s mother’s name is Louise Knight Crosby daughter of John Hinchie Madison Knight. As a kid we would always go to Soso, Ms to see my dad’s family. Two things I always wondered when I was there alot of my relatives looked white and had alot of land. My father didn’t tell my brother and I about Newt Knight only until my father passed. I was told by my Aunts if I knew as a kid I would of used that info for my history class..

  8. I grew up in Laurel in the ’60’s. My parents knew Ethel Knight, and we often hunted arrowheads on her place by Reddoch’s Ferry on the Leaf River. As a kid, I always thought Ms. Knight was a bit eccentric. Others may have used another word. I enjoyed your research and writing so much. Great to hear stories of Jones County and Soso. Thank you.

  9. I grew up In laurel married to a man from west Africa to which many slaves of South decented.i also have a biracial child in the 87.it Was Very difficult. I now live in Washington state where every other is biracial I we’ll be so glad we. This taboo of m u ed is over we are all human all of us bleed red.

  10. My ggg-grandparents are John “Jackie” Knight and Keziah Davis Knight, through my gg-grandmother Harriet Knight, wife of Charles Brumfield. Of course the father of Newton Knight is Albert Knight, brother to Harriet Knight Brumfield. I am thoroughly enjoying reading about my ancestors and expect to see the movie, The Free State of Jones, and to travel to Jones/Jasper Counties in MS. I grew up in Yazoo County, MS, and now live in SC.

  11. I too grew knowing lots of folk from Soso,Hot Coffee,Bay Springs and even certain areas around Ellisville (e.g.) Curry Community. Where The Knights, Crosbys,Barnes,The Speeds,All these Folks were somehow related.For the most part all were pretty decent people.All about Family.I always admired that about them.I grew up in Laurel in The late 50’s early 60’s So none of this new news to those of Us who grew up in that era and in that region.

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