The Free State of Jones

Martha Wheeler, Eye-Witness to the “Free State of Jones”

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.

Matthew McConaughey and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Newt and Rachel, “The Free State of Jones,” STX Entertainment (2016)

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.

Keri Russell and Gugu Mbatha Raw as Serena Knight and Rachel Knight in “The Free State of Jones,” STX Entertainment (2016)

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

The greatest Lost Cause extravaganza ever: Gone With the Wind. Selznick International Pictures (1939).

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.

Mary Alden in blackface as the dangerously seductive Mulatta, Lydia Brown, in Birth of a Nation, D. W. Griffiths (1915).

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.

Serena Knight as an old woman, seated with her mixed-race kinfolk.

 

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.

NOTES:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Reported in WPA unpublished narratives, Record Group 60, vol. 315. Mississippi State Archives, Jackson.
  6. Quoted from Bynum, FSOJ, p. 63.
  7. Quoted from Bynum, FSOJ, p. 5.
  8. Author’s email interviews with Leander Taylor and Karen Jefferson Taylor, September 26—December 1, 2016
  9. 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.
  10. B. D. Graves, Addresses Delivered at Hebron Community Meeting, June 17, 1926, Collections of Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, Laurel, MS
  11. Author’s email interviews with Leander Taylor and Karen Jefferson Taylor, September 26—December 1, 2016.
  12. Author’s email interviews with Leander Taylor and Karen Jefferson Taylor, September 26—December 1, 2016.
  13. Federal manuscript censuses, Jasper and Jones Counties, MS, 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910. (Most of the census of 1890 was destroyed by fire.)
  14. 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.

24 replies »

  1. Thank you for the update. My name is Edwin B. Matthews Jr. My father was senior. My grandfather was James Laudrick Matthews and his father, my great grand father was Lasrus Mathews. He is on the Newt Knight rooster. On the rooster the name Matthews is spelt with only one T. My father was born in SOSO Mississippi and attended Shady Grove school. There is a Matthews Baptist church, museum and cemetery located there. The original log home is located on a piece of property owned by Oscar Matthews, deceased. I believe a cousin by the name of James Matthews, Oscar’s son may have it now. My father always spoke of my great grandfather riding with Newt Knight. It’s nice to see a little of what took place and what their thoughts were then.

    Thank you

    Edwin Blanks Matthews Jr. Goodyear, Arizona

    • Ed, It’s nice to “meet” you, and thanks for your comment!

      Early in my research I became interested in the Mathews family (and, yes, the name was always spelled with one t in early records) and the important role several of its members played in the Free State of Jones. I particularly admire the work of Benegah Mathews in organizing Newt’s compensation claim to the federal government in 1870, and wrote about him in the Free State of Jones.

      I covered Benegah even more extensively in Long Shadow of the Civil War, where I devoted an entire chapter to Newt’s claim process. Benagah’s daughter, Caroline, married Matt Collins, nephew of Jasper Collins and son of Simeon Collins and his wife, Lydia Bynum. This, of course, further links the Mathews family with the Knight Band, which virtually all the Collinses either joined or supported. I count the Mathews family as being among Jones County’s most committed Unionists.

      In 1926, btw, J. W. Moss gave a public lecture entitled “The History of Union Line Community.” In discussing early settlements, he mentioned that Joel Welborn lived in the first home built in the town of Mossville, where “east of us the Mathews brothers, Ben, Jack, and Laz, lived near Pleasant Home Church.”

      Vikki

    • In case you have not come across it, T.J. Knight’s “Life and Activities of Captain Newton Knight” briefly noted (pg 18): “Lazarus Mathews, captured April 20, 1864 by Lowery (sic) Company.” Fold3 has a single service record card under the name “L. Mathews” for July-Aug 1864 which indicates he was enlisted May 1, 1864 at Knight Mill into Company K of the 6th MS Infantry Regiment. The name, date and place of enlistment suggest this was the captured Lazarus Mathews, put into service in the regiment commanded by Col. Robert Lowery. He name does not appear among those in his company who surrendered at Citronella, AL in 1865.

  2. Thanks for the update, and sharing further information. I want to be clear regarding Rachel. She had a daughter Frances “Fannie” Knight who md. George Madison Knight? Or was this Frances “Fannie” Knight the d/o John A. Knight and Cassandra Knight who was the d/o Benjamin Knight, and Catherine Redock? John A. Knight being the son of Pap Knight?

    Always look forward to reading further information on the family lines. Edwin Blanks Matthews, my family is buried at the Matthews Cemetery.

    • Hi Frances, great as always to hear from you!

      The confusion over which of the above women named “Frances” that Newt’s son, George Madison “Matt” Knight, married is caused by the fact that he married BOTH of them. He first married Rachel’s daughter, “Fannie,” but then abandoned her and their children without having to obtain a divorce since their marriage was invalidated once Mississippi passed laws against interracial marriage. After Matt left Fannie, he married his white cousin, Frances, daughter of John and Cassandra Knight.

      Vikki

  3. Just a question. Wasn’t it illegal in Mississippi for whites to live with blacks and if so, wouldn’t the official census mean that even though Newt was living with Rachel, he would still be counted as living with Serena as it would have been illegal for him to live openly with Rachel? I wondered about that bit.

    • Hi Kerry! Interesting question. It seems plausible that Newt basically lived in both dwellings. After all, we know he had children by both Rachel and George Ann, whether he lived in the same house or not. My point was that the local gossip that Newt had “married” George Ann—even when stated in a newspaper—is meaningless without proof of the marriage. I have actually heard people claim that that newspaper statement proved that Newt had married Rachel, when in fact it proves nothing, and more likely referred to George Ann, his partner of 33 years, anyway. And regardless of where Newt actually spent his nights, it’s interesting that not one single census out of five taken over a 50 year period reported him living with either Rachel or George Ann.

      We can only speculate as to why. Newt may have wanted to reduce attention to his unconventional behavior by separating the households of his partners and living only with his legal wife, Serena. Perhaps he felt it was easier on their children—we know that his relationships with Rachel and George Ann alienated his son Tom from him. As for the census enumerator, he had no problem listing the interracial marriages between Newt and Serena’s two children and Rachel’s two children even though laws had been passed forbidding interracial marriages. So I suspect it was Newt’s idea to live separately from Rachel and George Ann, or at least appear to..

      Regarding the issue of laws against whites and black living together, I assume you mean in a sexual capacity. While there have long been “illegal cohabitation” laws against people living together as man and wife (i.e. sexually) without benefit of marriage, some which specifically forbade interracial coupling, I’ve never heard of a law against blacks and whites living together per se. Such a law would have been a nightmare to enforce, since many blacks were live-in housekeepers and workers for whites in segregated America. Also, many people of African ancestry are as light-skinned as those of European ancestry—imagine trying to decide who’s “white” and who’s “black” in each household!

      As racial segregation ordinances increased during the late nineteenth century, it became common to label whites who lived with or among people of color as “black” themselves. To maintain the appearance of segregation, the 1900 manuscript population census eliminated the racial category of “Mulatto,” and categorized everyone as either “white” or “black.” Because Newt and Serena lived among people of color, they were labeled “black” in that census. Segregation was unenforceable to a large degree, so you ended up with ridiculous things like that. But, hey, it looked good on paper—everyone in every neighborhood was either “black” or “white.” Except that they weren’t. And many, as in the Knight community, were both.

      Vikki

  4. Very interesting read! This mixed race Knight family has strong ties to Kelly Settlement thru marriage and direct descendants. The White portion of this Knight family also has ties to Kelly Settlement with several of their descendants living in this same general area.

    • Hi Dennis,

      I am a descendant of the Smith, Knight, and Kelly families! The ancestry information is all new to me – I just learned of the connection within the past 8 months.

      Here’s my lineage: Newt & Serena’s daughter, Mollie, married Jeffrey, son of Rachel & Jesse. They had a daughter, Ollie Jane, who married Louis “Bud” Smith. Bud & Ollie had a son, Vaster, who married Ethel Kelly, and they had my father, William Smith, who was married to my mom, Clara.

      If you knew my father or grandparents, and would be willing to share any information…I would love to talk with you offline.

      Thanks so much for your help!
      Jenea Smith King

  5. Hello Vicky! Don Loftin here still following Renegade South ! So good to see information touching on lives of my Loftin & Collons kin in Jonesc& Jasper counties in Mississippi & Hardin County Texas !
    I understand how difficult it must be staying abreast of so many branches from the various genealogy trees !
    As mentioned in earlier comments I am youngest son og Leo ard Harrison Loftin son of Leonard Lee & France’s Abarilla Collins Loftin . France’s as yu know was daughter of Simeon & Lydia Bynum of Jones Co who married L L Loftin in JaspercCounty in 1868 . In your book Shadows from Civil War you describe the movement of my grandparents along with others to Big Thicket Hardin County ! SomecCollins relatives made the move as you pointed out in the move of 1872.
    My grandparents had 12 children ten in thecThicket the eighth my father in 1887! I was born in Batson near the Thicket community in 1925 grew up in SourLake !
    Hard to believe these twelve passed leaving no records of our roots creating a void in our genealogical bridge !
    In 1979 age 54 through yrs of research traced my lineage to my ancestor in Va in 1636!
    Didn’t intend to bore you again with this personal observation !
    Glad to report a Loftin Reunion continues to be held by descendants of Leo ard & Frances Collins Loftin every July in Thicket Texas where the Loftins settled after coming from Mississippi in 1872! Please excuse this long winded discourse !seems a trait inherited f

    • Hi Don,

      It’s great to hear from you after a period of some months! Glad to know you’re still working on the family history and planning to attend the July Loftin Reunion—which may already have taken place. If not, please give my best to those in attendance.

      Vikki (the great-grand-niece—or something like that!—of Lydia Bynum Collins.)

  6. Hi Vikki. I’m currently reading a collection of WPA interviews conducted in the mid 1930s with former slaves who resided in Mississippi. I’m somewhat perplexed by the narratives as they portray their “marsters” as kind and generous, plentiful food, well made clothes, and rarely a mention of “whuppins”. There also seems to be a common theme of negativity towards the Yankee soldiers and “ole Abe Lincoln” and a belief that they were better off under slavery. I can’t help but think that the former slaves…living in the Jim Crow south…used caution in what they said about their early lives as slaves. But it seems as though the only narratives published in this particular compilation were those that shone a positive light on the institution of slavery. I can’t imagine the tremendous shock, going from being “owned” and being “on your own”, to the existence of people that knew no other way of life, and maybe some did feel more secure having known no other way to survive. Most of those whose narratives I’m reading refer to living children who moved north…primarily Chicago and Detroit. Having just read The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, which is about the “Great Migration”, their mention of children in the north shows a different perspective of that movement.

    • I found the following excerpt in an interview with former slave Henri Necaise. Henri was 105 at the time of the interview and was born in Harrison County, about 19 miles from Pass Christian along the ridge road from the swamp near the Wolf River. Henri was owned by Ursan Ladnier and lived in a French Catholic settlement whose inhabitants probably had no convictions or feelings of loyalty during the Civil War. “I was big ‘nough in de Civil War to drive five yoke o’ steers to Mobile an’ git grub to feed de wimmins an’ chilluns. Some o’ de mens was a-fightin’ an’ some was a-runnin’ and’ hidin’. I was a slave an’ I had to do what dey tol’ me. I carried grub into de swamp to men, but I never knowed what dey was a-hidin’ from.” It appears there were people of the same persuasion in Harrison County as the Knight Band.

      • Chuck,

        That’s a good point, and I quoted Henri Necaise in Free State of Jones as an example of slaves that Newt might have encountered on the Leaf River (see pp 109-110). It’s important to remember, however, that the only documented slaves who were in contact with the Knight Band are Rachel, Joe Hatten, and Martha Hatten Wheeler.

        Vikki

    • Chuck,

      You correctly identify the limits of the ex-slave narratives. The greatest drawback is that the interviews were conducted in the South during the era of segregation and continued KKK violence against people of color. The very questions assigned to interviewers, as well as the rosy picture often painted of slavery, is reflective of this—and also of the “Lost Cause” version of the Old South and Civil War that held sway during this era. Thankfully, not all former slaves—such as Martha Wheeler—were intimidated by their white interviewers. Some even described the abuses of slavery graphically. That’s why the narratives are incredibly valuable, but must also be analyzed within the historical context of how and when they were obtained.

      Vikki

      • I also came across several references to log cabins and catted chimneys…which made me smile!

  7. Dr. Bynum,

    In the movie there was the guy named Ward who was pretty discontent after his farm was destroyed. Do you know if there were any of the Knight Company that became disolutioned and left before everything ended?

    • Hi James,

      Thanks for your question. Demoralization was indeed high during and after the Civil War, and a number of Jones County men and families migrated west, especially into Texas.

      Vikki

  8. Dr. Bynum,

    Thank you for answering all my questions!! How do you suppose it is that Newt was never killed by the KKK? Clearly he was a badass but just one man against a whole army? And I would think he would have been pretty high on their “list” of people they would want to kill. Things I have read show that he wasn’t a person to mess with. Was his reputation really that of you don’t mess with him or he might kill you, or was it more of a kind hearted person as Thomas Knight wrote about? Thanks again!

    • Hi James,
      Nice to hear from you again. After the war, there was a Klan presence in Jones and Jasper Counties, but its organizations were larger in counties that had been major centers of slavery before emancipation. There, freedmen were numerous, and some held political offices. The Klan became more visible in Jones and Jasper Counties after WWI, when it was resurrected in the name of white supremacy and segregation. The movie, “Birth of a Nation” glorified the Klan, thereby increasing its support throughout the South. But by then, Newt was an old man, no longer in politics. By 1922, he had passed. It was his children, and especially his grandchildren, who faced harassment by the Klan in the 20th century.

    • Thanks for your comment, AD, and for the reminder that interracial marriages were not always illegal in Reconstruction Mississippi. My understanding is that laws were passed against it around 1880 or a bit earlier, and then codified in the 1890 state constitution.

      This apparently explains why Newt and Serena’s children, Matt and Molly, were able to legally marry Rachel’s children, Fannie and Jeffrey (they had a double wedding around 1879). It also means that Newt could have sought a divorce from Serena during this decade and married Rachel, had he so chosen.

      Vikki

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