By Vikki Bynum
I’ll never forget the excitement I felt when, in the midst of researching The Free State of Jones, I came upon the WPA’s 1936 interview with Martha Wheeler, a former slave of Laurel, Mississippi. Today, I realize more than ever that Martha just may be the best source for verifiable remarks about Newt, Rachel, and Serena Knight, and the interracial community they built in Soso, Mississippi, in the aftermath of the Civil War. (1)
Although long a staple of folklore and the subject of numerous books, the story of Newt Knight and Rachel Knight’s collaboration against the Confederacy was not well-known before the June 2016 release of the movie, The Free State of Jones. Because of their long-term intimate relationship, Rachel emerged as a central figure in the film version of Jones County’s insurrection. Her dynamism, her struggles, her experiences of slavery and freedom, have since generated international interest in the full story of her life.
Unfortunately, no Hollywood movie could have provided an in-depth treatment of both a Civil War insurrection and the remarkable mixed-race community that followed. Only a fraction of Rachel’s factual personal life was told amid the larger story of slavery, Civil War, and class resistance to Confederate authority.
Nevertheless, judging from the traffic on this blog since release of The Free State of Jones, the movie’s abbreviated portrait of the interracial Knight community piqued tremendous interest among movie audiences. Tantalizing glimpses of the 1948 miscegenation trial of Newt and Rachel’s great-grandson, Davis Knight, as well as images of Newt’s two “wives,”—one white (Serena), the other a woman of color (Rachel)—in scenes of domestic contentment in post-Civil War Mississippi sparked that interest even more.
Release of the movie lit up this blog! Yvonne Bivins’s three-part history of Rachel Knight and my own essays on Davis Knight and Serena Knight have consistently been the most popular hits on Renegade South for more than a year now.Despite its partially fictional treatments of Newt, Rachel, and Serena Knight, the movie presented a true story
of Southern Unionism and interracial collaboration in the Civil War South. With a stellar cast of stars, The Free State of Jones provided a desperately needed corrective to Hollywood’s long obsession with romanticized extravaganzas that endlessly repeat outdated Lost Cause versions of the Civil War.
At the same time, the movie provided an alternative to the most widely-read book on the subject: Ethel Knight’s The Echo of the Black Horn, which in 1951 became the go-to source for the “Authentic Tale” of Newt Knight and the Free State of Jones. Ethel, the white grandniece of Newt Knight, filled her book with wonderfully entertaining family stories she’d heard all her life, many of which are true, others embellished, some outright false.
In 1951, Ethel was proudly pro-Confederate and an avowed segregationist. In telling Newt’s story, she condemned him as a traitor to both his race and the Confederate Cause. Drawing on stock images traceable to the very first Lost Cause movie, Birth of a Nation (1915), she stereotyped Rachel Knight and her daughter George Ann as conniving and seductive mulattas, while Newt’s white wife and daughter, Serena and Mollie, appeared as captives within his “White Negro” community.
So whose version of the Free State of Jones is factually correct? That of a local writer determined to reshape a legendary symbol of resistance into a deviant outlaw? Or that of a Hollywood screen writer determined to recast a Confederate deserter as a Unionist hero and believer in racial equality? Both present heartfelt perspectives about motivation and morality, but if one wants more facts, this blog is a great place to start.
On Renegade South, readers learn that although Rachel may have been the most important woman in Newt’s life, after her death, he spent his final thirty-three years in partnership with her daughter, George Ann. Documentation of both women’s lives before the Civil War is sketchy at best. Born a slave in Georgia in 1840, Rachel’s rape by a white man resulted in her giving birth to George Ann at the age of fourteen. Within a few years, Rachel and her light-skinned daughter were purchased by John “Jackie” Knight, Newt Knight’s grandfather, who moved them to his Mississippi plantation.
In Mississippi, Rachel gave birth to two sons, Jeffrey, in 1858, and Edmond, in 1861. During the war, she gave birth to a daughter, Fannie. The father of these three children is identified by descendants as Jackie’s son, Jesse Davis Knight. In 1860, one year before his death, Jackie transferred ownership of Rachel and Jeffrey to that son. Then, sometime between late 1863 and early 1864, Rachel joined her master’s nephew, Newt Knight, in Jones County’s insurrection against the Confederacy.
Before the Civil War ended, Jesse Davis Knight was dead of battlefield wounds. With a Union victory on the way, Rachel soon was free. By war’s end, she was the mother of four, possibly five, children. In 1865, she gave birth to Martha, the first of her five children with Newt Knight. Before 1870, Rachel and her children moved onto Newt’s land, where Newt’s two families blended into one. This marked the beginning of the “White Negro” community in which Rachel and George Ann lived for the rest of their lives. (2)The importance of documented sources for understanding the complex history of the Knight community brings us back to Martha Wheeler’s 1936 Interview. Before The Echo of the Black Horn was published, most of the general public was unaware of Jones County’s interracial community, or at least of its origins. Martha’s words provide a slave’s perspective rather than a slaveholder’s, and come from a woman who lived through the Civil War and Reconstruction.
Unlike Ethel Knight, Martha Wheeler was a contemporary of Newt, Serena, Rachel, and George Ann Knight. Born Martha Hatten in 1846, after the war she married Alfred Wheeler, also a former slave. Their great-grandson Leander Taylor believes that Martha worked on more than one of the Knight plantations of Covington and Jones Counties of Mississippi. Court records indicate she may have been one of several slaves that Jackie Knight gifted to his children during the final years of his life. Or, she may be the unnamed 14-year old female listed as one of Jackie Knight’s twenty-two slaves on the 1860 slave schedules for Covington County, Mississippi. (3)
Martha was sister to Joe Hatten, the teenaged boy who appears in the book Free State of Jones as the slave ordered by the Confederacy to convince a certain deserter—William Martin “Dickie” Knight—to turn himself into Confederate authorities. You see, Joe’s master, William H. “Pap” Knight, was Newt Knight’s uncle, and Pap’s son Dickie was a member of the Knight Company. (4)
Joe Hatten, Confederates hoped, would enable them to capture at least one member of Newt Knight’s band. To that end, they allegedly seized Pap to hold as ransom for the return of Dicky. Accurately deducing that Joe knew where the Knight hideout was, they sent him to the swamps with a message for Dicky: turn yourself in or your father will be hanged to death. Joe delivered the message, but Dicky didn’t take the bait, and was famously quoted as saying that Pap was an old man without many years left anyway. All ended well. Joe nervously went home without reporting back to the Confederates; Dicky fled to the Union army in New Orleans; the Confederates did not follow through on their threat to hang Pap Knight.
Joe Hatten’s story indicates the important role of slaves in Civil War home front conflicts, especially in regions like the Mississippi piney woods where inner civil wars raged. Both he and his sister Martha experienced that inner civil war. Martha’s future husband Alfred is said to have dug Ben Knight’s grave after Ben was run down by hounds and hanged by Confederate Col Robert Lowry. Luckily for us, Martha seized the opportunity to tell their stories when the WPA came to town. (5)Unfortunately, Martha Wheeler’s words lay dormant in the collections of the Mississippi State Archives in Jackson for thirty-six years before being published in 1972. Even after publication of the ex-slave narratives, few people beyond scholars and students of slavery and the Civil War were likely to discover her interview, buried as it was among thousands of other interviews.
The ex-slave narratives are imperfect sources of history and must be used with care. Conducted in racially-segregated states by mostly white interviewers, many are disappointingly brief and marred by racist dogma, demeaning racial stereotypes, and romantic images of the “good old days” of slavery. Nevertheless, the narratives are a goldmine of information. Some WPA interviewers were more skilled than others, and many former slaves spoke their minds plainly and bluntly despite the dismal inequality in which they lived.
Bluntness was certainly characteristic of Martha, who not only spoke her mind but appeared to choose her own topics of discussion. Local resident Addie West granted Martha an unusually long interview and quoted her extensively on various subjects rather than merely paraphrasing answers to predetermined questions (as many other interviewers did).
Martha’s reminiscences about Jackie Knight are a case in point. She not only provided detailed descriptions of his plantation operations, but also described a Southern planter for whom secession was no “noble cause.” Martha made it clear that for Jackie Knight, secession spelled doom:
Sitting on the porch, moving his head from side to side, he had one song and he sang it all day: “I am ruined, I am ruined!” (6)
Knowing that Newt Knight’s grandpa agonized before his death over the secession movement that was gathering steam reminds me of Confederate Col. William Brown’s warning to Governor Charles Clark in 1864 that “old and influential citizens, perhaps their fathers or relatives” had imbued Jones County deserters with “union ideas based on the ‘principles’ of the agrarian class.” Looks like Jackie Knight was one of those “old and influential” citizens! (6)
Martha’s description of Newt Knight’s interracial community was equally blunt, defying the Southern tradition of public silence in regard to multiple sexual relations as well as sexual relations across the color line.
“Rachel was considered [Newt’s] woman,” Martha declared. After Rachel’s death, she continued, “her daughter, Georgianne, took her place and separated him from his wife [Serena], who went out and lived until her death . . . among her children. He never married the Negro [George Ann], but brought up a family of seven with her at his old home place and died among them.” (7)
There’s a lot packed into those three sentences! First, Martha affirms that Newt and Rachel were lovers. Then, she states that Newt partnered with George Ann after Rachel’s death. It was at that point, around 1889, that Martha says Serena exited Newt’s household.
Martha unabashedly described a patriarchal homestead in which (as public records verify) Serena and Rachel regularly gave birth to Newt’s children. She did not speculate on the nature of the women’s relationship with each other, or why Serena endured her husband’s relationship with Rachel for more than twenty years, yet bolted after he took up with George Ann. Finally, Martha’s remark that Serena then went and lived “among her children,” confirms that Serena remained within the mixed-race community until the last years of her life, if not until her death.
Long after Serena, Rachel, and George Ann’s deaths, Leander Taylor remembers his great-grandmother (Martha lived to be 100 years old) mentioning “Newt’s women,” and remarking that “he liked women.” Leander also recalled hearing that Newt fathered children by more than one of “his” women, while at the same time protected them against outside abuse: “They say he didn’t let anybody mistreat his women.” (8)
According to Leander, rumor had it that Newt and Rachel lived in separate households on the same land. Turns out, this “rumor” is verified by federal manuscript censuses. In both 1870 and 1880, Newt was reported living with Serena and their children, while Rachel lived in a nearby dwelling with her children—including those fathered by Newt. After Rachel’s death and Serena’s departure from Newt’s household, Newt and George Ann maintained the same arrangement. Between 1900 and 1920, censuses show, they headed separate households comprised of themselves and various children and grandchildren. Apparently, the only woman with whom Newt actually lived under the same roof was Serena, his legal wife. (9)
Martha’s statement that Newt “never married the Negro,” refers not to Rachel, but to George Ann. Apparently, many locals assumed such a marriage took place despite the fact that interracial marriages had been illegal in Mississippi for over fifty years. Ten years earlier, Benjamin D. Graves, a slaveholder’s son, expressed his contempt for the “mighty sorry people” of the interracial Knight family by insisting that Newt “took a negro woman as his wife. . . . Her name was George Ann. She lived in his home where the other wife had lived.” (10)
It seemed important to Martha to refute such statements, which no doubt fueled gossip among whites. Even earlier, in Newt’s 1922 obituary, the editors of the Ellisville Progress had lamented that he had “ruined his life and future by marrying a Negro woman.”
No court evidence of such a marriage has ever been produced, however, nor does the newspaper’s statement prove anything more than its editors’ disapproval of Newt Knight’s behavior.
Leander remembered that mixed-race Knights were sometimes called “Freejacks,” signifying that neither white folks nor black folks claimed them. Supposedly, he heard, they regularly married within their own kinship group in order to “keep the bloodline ‘white,’” (Ethel Knight and Yvonne Bivins reported this as well). But, he recalled, “although that bunch looked white, they mostly did not pass as white.” He added that “when they left town, some of them ‘turned white.’” (11)
Not all mixed-race Knights sought to identify as white. According to Leander, a number of them attended black schools during the ‘30s, and at least one descendant of Newt and Rachel—Nancy, the daughter of James Madison “Hinchie” Knight—married Jesse Hatten, son of Joe Hatten. (12)
Newt Knight’s unconventional and defiant behavior sparked gossip long after his death, and likely always will. While much of the gossip is untrue or unproven, Martha’s statements to the WPA and to her family have held up well under scrutiny. The federal manuscript censuses confirm that Serena, as well as Newt, Rachel, George Ann, and all their children, lived in a self-contained community of kinfolk, and that many married their cousins. Likewise, as Martha indicated, the 1900 and 1910 censuses show Serena living in the household of her daughter, Mollie, and son-in-law, Jeffrey (Rachel’s son by Jesse Davis Knight). The 1900 census confirms, too, that George Ann Knight gave birth to two daughters within five years of her mother’s death. (13)
Although Serena lived until 1923, she apparently was overlooked for the 1920 census. Perhaps her son, Tom, assumed guardianship over her at this late stage of her life. If so, that would explain why he supplied the personal information that identifies Serena as both a widow and a divorcee on her death certificate. (14)
Why is Serena listed in death as both widowed and divorced? I suspect the answer lies in Tom Knight’s lifelong embarrassment over Newt Knight’s extra-marital interracial relationships. Deeply racist and long estranged from his father on that account, Tom may have sought to “divorce” Serena in death from the shame that he felt over his father’s behavior. It was simple enough to do so. Information about a person’s age, marital status, or birthplace was typically supplied by family members who often did not know, or chose not to accurately report, the answers to such questions. In any case, they were not required to document their answers.
Neither the courts and the census enumerators, nor Ethel Knight and Martha Wheeler, ever cited a divorce between Newt and Serena. Only Tom Knight did so—after his mother was dead and could no longer speak for herself. This is where documented facts are particularly important. Until a legal record of divorce is found, there is no basis for asserting that one was obtained.
Meanwhile, the family portrait below confirms that Serena remained a part of her son-in-law Jeffrey’s household even after the death of daughter Mollie in 1917.
In closing, I must proclaim my gratitude for Martha Wheeler’s observant mind and long life! Her interview, a result of the federal government’s effort to preserve the memories of former slaves through the Work Projects Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression, yields important insights into the Free State of Jones and the lives of Newt, Serena, Rachel, and George Ann Knight. Thanks and gratitude as well to Leander Taylor and Karen Taylor Jefferson for sharing later aspects of Martha’s life with me.
- Interviews of living former slaves were conducted by the Federal Writers Project under the authority of the Work Projects Administration (WPA), an agency launched by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the New Deal era of the Great Depression. Martha Wheeler’s interview may be found in Supplement, ser. 1, vol. 10, Mississippi Narratives, pt. 5, p. 2265, of George P. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972). Unfortunately, her interview does not appear in the online collection of interviews: (https://www.loc.gov/collections/slave-narratives-from-the-federal-writers-project-1936-to-1938/about-this-collection/).Martha was also interviewed for unpublished county history projects conducted by the WPA that are still housed at the Mississippi State Archives in Jackson.
- According to Yvonne Bivins, Rachel gave birth to a second child, Rosetta, at age fifteen, who was also purchased by Jackie Knight. Yvonne and others identify Jackie’s son, Jesse Davis Knight, as the father of Jeffrey, Edmond, and Fannie.
- Court documents show that in 1858 Jackie deeded a twelve-year-old “Negro girl” named Mary to his daughter, Altamirah. Might this actually have been Martha? In 1859 Jackie deeded another enslaved girl, Mary Ann, to the same daughter. This Mary Ann was one year younger than the previous Mary, leaving open the possibility of courthouse confusion over the girls’ names.
- Author’s email interviews with Leander Taylor and Karen Taylor Jefferson, September 26—December 1, 2016. According to B. D. Graves (Addresses Delivered at Hebron Community Meeting, June 17, 1926, Collections of Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, Laurel, MS), George Ann Knight was also a slave on the plantation of Pap Knight, meaning that she and Joe Hatten likely knew each very well.
- Reported in WPA unpublished narratives, Record Group 60, vol. 315. Mississippi State Archives, Jackson.
- Quoted from Bynum, FSOJ, p. 63.
- Quoted from Bynum, FSOJ, p. 5.
- Author’s email interviews with Leander Taylor and Karen Jefferson Taylor, September 26—December 1, 2016
- Author’s email interviews with Leander Taylor and Karen Jefferson Taylor, September 26—December 1, 2016. Federal manuscript Census, Jasper County, MS. 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920.
- B. D. Graves, Addresses Delivered at Hebron Community Meeting, June 17, 1926, Collections of Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, Laurel, MS
- Author’s email interviews with Leander Taylor and Karen Jefferson Taylor, September 26—December 1, 2016.
- Author’s email interviews with Leander Taylor and Karen Jefferson Taylor, September 26—December 1, 2016.
- Federal manuscript censuses, Jasper and Jones Counties, MS, 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910. (Most of the census of 1890 was destroyed by fire.)
- Death certificate of “Syrena” Knight, Dec. 11, 1923. Mississippi State Board of Health, #21562, Jones County, city of Laurel. Although Tom reported his mother as both widowed and divorced, he claimed not to know either her maiden name or where she was born.
Categories: The Free State of Jones