Revisiting the Free State of Jones in Blacksburg, Virginia

News Flash: As I was putting the final touches on the following report, I learned that the American Historical Association has awarded the movie The Free State of Jones the John E. O’Connor Award for “outstanding interpretation of  history through the medium of film or video.” The award underscores historians’ appreciation of the movie’s refutation of the Lost Cause version of Civil War history! Congratulations to director/screenwriter Gary Ross and STX Entertainment for this important achievement.

 

The Lyric Theatre, Blacksburg, VA.

I’m just back from Blacksburg, Virginia, where I attended a screening of the movie The Free State of Jones at the historic downtown Lyric Theatre. The movie, its showing sponsored by the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech, continues to stimulate interest in both the facts and the historical context of Jones County’s rebellion against the Confederacy.

Following the movie, I discussed Hollywood director and screenwriter Gary Ross’s cinematic refutation of the Lost Cause version of the Civil War and Reconstruction that has long dominated popular culture (and Hollywood in particular). Drawing on my years of research and publications on the Free State of Jones, I noted the cultural and kin-based origins of Jones County’s yeoman class uprising, and the uprising’s striking similarity to numerous other “inner civil wars” that raged throughout the Civil War South. Historically, I emphasized, the Free State of Jones is testimony to the importance of class dissent, interracial collaboration, and pockets of fierce support for the Union throughout the Civil War.

Until recently, the memories and heritage of Southern Unionists were largely buried, and quite deliberately so.  The process of denying the significance of Southern white anti-Confederate sentiment came in the aftermath of the violent, Ku Klux Klan-assisted overthrow of Reconstruction during the 1870s. The rewriting of history to suit Lost Cause principles paralleled the early twentieth-century mania for erecting monuments to celebrate the victory of white supremacy and segregation that followed on the heels of this counterrevolution.

Movie poster advertises ‘The Birth of a Nation’ directed by D.W. Griffith, 1915.

Then came the film, Birth of a Nation (1915)—a cinematic celebration of the Lost Cause, the Klan, segregation, and lynching.  The story of Newt Knight, Rachel Knight, and all the men, women, and slaves who supported the Union from Mississippi became a story of shame for many Jones County descendants.

To demonstrate how embedded Lost Cause images became over time, I presented key movie stills from Birth of a Nation (1915), Gone With the Wind (1939),  and Tap Roots (1948). All three movies bowed to the myth of a Confederacy formed to protect Constitutional principles and honor—not slavery—and provided visual testimony to its permeation of twentieth-century popular culture. Playing especially to the sentiments and emotions of Confederate descendants, these movies perpetuated stereotypes of benevolent plantation masters and gentle mistresses, dangerous black men, loyal mammies, and degraded poor whites (i.e., white Unionists ).

Here’s hoping that The Free State of Jones encourages future movie makers to continue drawing on the expertise of professional historians when attempting to recreate the Civil War past.

 

 

Post Script: Just before the movie began, I was delighted to meet in person a longtime friend, Sherree Tannen. Sherree has participated in many discussions on this blog—has written two guest posts for it—but I had never met her in person, nor did she warn me she was coming to Blacksburg, so this was a real treat!

Vikki Bynum and Sherree Tannen, in front of the Lyric Theatre, Blacksburg, VA

 

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4 replies »

  1. Vikki,

    Thanks so much, once again, for sharing on Renegade South. Over the past two years, it’s been so enlightening to review and and have a better knowledge of my ancestors, especially Newt Knight. It is thrilling to know that the LYRIC is showing the film. Is this a one-time showing? My dad was from Va. and should he be here today, he would have me fly with him to see the movie. Uncle Newt’s legacy was an item for him, as Mom, Martha Elizabeth Knight, was the daughter of Daniel Franklin Knight. Dad never wanted to remain in Jones County after WWII, however, he arrived to take Mom back to Norfolk to live, being closer to the Martins. As expected, he was greeted by me, one month old, his first child. Before he could unpack, he was called back for the Korean Conflict, once again serving as a Morse Code Specialist. As time passed, on his first furlough, Dan Knight died in his corn field. My grandmother, Mittie Simmons Knight, only had one daughter. Long story short, dad finished his service, returned to Jones Ct. and took over the farm and duties of Dan Knight. The rest is history.

    There is some very interesting historical facts that you may care to know regarding my grandfather, Daniel Franklin Knight. The information came from Robert ? Simmons, the grandson of my great-grandparents I will mention forward. My maternal grandmother, Mittie Simmons Knight, was the daughter of Jethro and Inez Hinton Simmons from Ellisville. [As told to me in 2016]. They were the caretakers for the Jones County Jailhouse. A room was attached to the jail as their living quarters. It was located on the first floor of the Jones Ct. Court House and later moved to the basement. My great-grandmother cooked for the inmates and cleaned, while my great-grandfather took care of the prisoners. I do not know their age, but, they would have been around 20 yr. older than Daniel at the time, so, let’s say 40’s. On Saturday evenings, Dan would appear at a given hour and play the fiddle in the receiving room of the jail, while others danced and partied. As quoted by many of our relatives over the years, he was ‘something else’ with the fiddle. (I bought a violin (as I played and taught piano) and could not, for the life of me coordinate my fingers, bowing and finding the right string, all at the same time, for anything!) But, he was a natural. In the winter, when the weather was cold, he and other men in the area would build a fire near the sawmill, and split and make wooden shingles. I do have a picture of this group of Knights. In the spring and summer of the year…as farming became a commodity, he raised bees and sold honey to the neighbors.

    As you may expect, I was overwhelmed to find all this information available through that one phone call to Robert Simmons, as at only 3 months old, at the time of Dan’s death, no one had really discussed my grandfather after a few years, not even my Mom. Robert and I talked for at least an hour. He lived until he died in his home on the Mississippi-Tennessee line, just south of Memphis, earlier this year.

    Thank you, Vikki, for this article and all the work you have done for our cause and family. As a friend told me after viewing the movie, “I’m not sure I would have agreed to have all the ghosts come forward in movie form!” We laughed and gathered her folks, The Royals family from north of Sandhill, might have served in and around that time with Newt.”

    Gratefully,

    Andrea Martin Wilson, great-great niece of Newt Knight

    (My husband, Bob Wilson, also on your roster of communicants, said to tell you I am definitely related to the spirited Newt. My beliefs in the humane goodness of mankind, leadership skills, spirit of protecting what’s worth protecting, my once jet-black curly hair piercing brown eyes all point to the Knights. I am very far from a prejudiced core, however, should we ever discuss that one subject (as Newt so well defined), I think you could appreciate one incident that changed the entire course of my life related to racism in the south. It was my undoing. It is worth a discussion as the ones that were so very hostile did live amongst us, but, the oblivion the Dan Knights lived in was anathema to their way of life. My best friend was the Negro man named Virgil that drove the buggy and mule for my grandfather. My grandmother made all his wife’s clothes and I played with their grandchildren and never knew the difference in these friends and my church friends. This attitude of mine towards the Negro race carried over in my nursing career, teaching in a University in the South and traveling to see Hospice patients in Tuskeegee, Al. 98% black population. Never once did I have reason not to welcome or be welcomed in their home. My earlier story was quite a shocker and ended with legal consequences I had obtained. Another time and place, Vikki.

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