By Vikki Bynum
Filming of the movie Free State of Jones is about to begin, and announcements regarding the cast are regularly appearing in movie trade papers. Renegade South learned less than a week ago that actor Keri Russell is set to play Serena Knight, the wife of Mississippi guerrilla band leader, Newt Knight.
Because Serena Turner Knight was the wife of Newt Knight, she frequently appears in narratives about the uprising popularly known as the Free State of Jones. In terms of documented facts, however, few of those narratives tell us much about what Serena felt or thought during a life punctuated by a national civil war, a local uprising led by her own husband, and several interracial relationships that occurred within her own family during the early years of racial segregation in Mississippi. This despite her long life—Serena was about 85 when she died in 1923, having outlived Newt by one year.
Questions about Serena usually begin with the obvious one of how she reacted to her husband’s wartime alliance and sexual relationship with the former slave, Rachel. Unlike many 19th century sexual liaisons between white men and women of color, Newt and Rachel’s relationship began during the Civil War and appears to have lasted until Rachel’s death in 1889. During those years, children were born to both Serena and Rachel.
More broadly, I wish we knew more about Serena’s personal experience of the Civil War. But perhaps more than anything, I am interested in her own life within the mixed-race community that she, Newt, and Rachel, presided over. Serena is often a forgotten member of this community although she too was the biological grandmother of a generation of mixed-race children. You see, it wasn’t just Newt and Rachel who engaged in an interracial relationship, so also did two of Newt and Serena’s children, who married across the color line. There were others, as well.
Which brings me to the question that I find most intriguing: how did Serena react to the interracial marriages that took place around 1880 between two of her and Newt’s children with two of Rachel’s mixed-race children (neither of them fathered by Newt)? By all appearances, she accepted those marriages, as did Newt and Rachel.
The photo below, in which an aged Serena is seated before the family of Jeffrey Knight, reveals her long presence in the mixed-race Knight community. Although her daughter Mollie had died a year or two earlier, Serena still lived in the household of her son-in-law, Jeffrey, son of Rachel Knight. Next to Jeffrey is his second wife, Sue Ella Smith, who was from the mixed-race Smith-Ainsworth family.
Because of Rachel Knight’s death in 1889 at the age of 49, many of the mixed-race grandchildren knew their white grandmother, Serena, far better than they knew their mixed-race grandmother. The following paragraph from Chapter four (p. 99) of my book, The Long Shadow of the Civil War, captures a bit of Serena’s remarkable life:
Not only Newt, but also his white wife, Serena, broke the social rules of southern segregationist society. Although Serena left his household sometime between 1880 and 1900, she did not completely leave the racially mixed Knight community, even after several of her grown children married white partners and left. Rather, she lived with her daughter Mollie and son-in-law Jeffrey (Rachel’s son) until after her daughter’s death around 1917. Even after Mollie’s death, Serena remained close to Jeffrey and her grandchildren. They were, after all, a family–a multiracial one that Serena, as well as Newt, embraced.
Life in Civil War Mississippi and the segregated society that followed was for more complex than many will ever know. The story of the Knight community provides a glimpse into only one example of that complexity.
Note: For my earlier 2008 essay on Serena Knight, click here.—vb
Categories: The Free State of Jones