Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

Ignoring Jim Crow: The Turbulent Appointment of Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

Ignoring Jim Crow: The Turbulent Appointment of Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers

Article excerpt

Captain Gardiner kept telling his wife that things were not as bad as they seemed. But Gardiner had no way of knowing that he'd sailed right into the 1896 hurricane off the coast of Virginia and that his ship, the E.S. Newman, was in serious trouble.

The hurricane winds blasted from the northeast, blowing the ship's sails to pieces. Captain Gardiner had been navigating for Norfolk Harbor, but as it was already past seven p.m., he estimated that the Newman had been pushed well to the south, probably somewhere off the coast of North Carolina. Sea water poured into the schooner with each crashing wave, and Gardiner knew the waves and wind would soon tear the ship apart. His only chance of saving his crew, his wife and three-year-old daughter, who were also on board, was to beach the Newman and hope that help would come from shore.

Gardiner ordered his six crewmen and his family to secure a hold topside, then he sailed the Newman into the violent breakers. The hull hit the sandy ocean floor; the Newman bent and cracked, but settled whole in the pounding surf. Gardiner knew that, in October, the lifesaving stations should be manned, so he ordered that a distress signal be lit. Then he did all that he could do: he waited.

The waves continued to pound the ship; she would go to pieces soon. Since the yawl boat had been lost to the storm, the crew would have to swim for shore if help did not arrive. The chances of reaching the beach - barely visible a hundred yards distant - in such conditions were nearly non-existent, even for the best of swimmers. The chances of the captain and his wife reaching land, towing their three-year-old child, were considerably worse. Gardiner ordered a second distress signal lit.

To the north, through the drizzle and fog, there was a tiny red light, but it fizzled then faded. Had they been spotted? Then a single red rocket was fired from shore. Some lifesaving crew had seen their distress call! Gardiner ordered that a red torch be lit to help the rescuers locate their position.

Soon there was movement on the beach: seven hazy figures and a pair of horses pulling a cart. Gardiner and his crew began to cheer. The sea rushed over the entire beach, bogging the lifesavers down, knocking some of them to their knees. Gardiner expected that they would use their Lyle gun to fire a line to the ship, so he instructed his men to spread out on the deck and be ready to bring in the line. But the line never came. Gardiner scrutinized the moving darkness in the direction of the beach for some signal from shore.

Then, between his ship and the shore, he noticed two figures pushing out into the surf. To attempt to swim to the ship was suicide! Gardiner hollered for his men to lower a ladder. Waves washed over the two swimmers, and they often disappeared under mountains of water. Several times Gardiner thought they had been swept away. The lifesavers fought their way through the surf to the cheers of the stranded mariners, but as they reached the disintegrating ship, the cheering on board faltered a moment. Gardiner focused in on the faces of salvation. These men were Negroes.(1)

At the turn of the century, along the thin, 150 mile strip of North Carolina coast, inhabitants of the Outer Banks dealt with the sea on a daily basis and understood the dangers of its moods. In these communities, coastal lifesavers often achieved reputations that lent to local folklore. Some lifesaving station keepers were as powerful as mayors. So, it surprises visitors today to learn that one of these stations was manned exclusively by African-Americans.

In retrospect, North Carolina, like the rest of the Southern states, seems the least likely place to find African-Americans in public positions of authority after the end of Reconstruction and the onset of Jim Crow segregation. During this period (roughly between 1876 and 1906), relations between the races were increasingly strained. …

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