For the keeper of the all-black Pea Island Life-Saving Station only 20 years after the Civil War, overcoming racism was just part of the job.
When the keeper of the Pea Island Life-Saving Station lost his job in the 1878 overhaul of the United States Life-Saving Service, a surprising thing happened. The new keeper selected for the Pea Island Station was a local surfman from the nearby Bodie Island Life-Saving Station. His name was Richard Etheridge. His appointment was surprising because up to that point he had only been Surfman No. 6, the lowest ranking surfman. It was unheard of to go from No. 6 to go directly to the keeper position.
Even more unheard of, though, was that fact that he was “colored.”
Etheridge was born a slave in 1842 into the household of John B. Etheridge on Bodie Island. He was not, however, treated like a slave, but more like a son and alongside John B.’s son. He lived in the master’s house, worked with them, and was taught reading and writing by John B., a practice illegal at the time.
Etheridge enlisted in the Union Army shortly after the Civil War began. He served with the 32nd U.S. Colored Troops, rising quickly to the rank of sergeant. Later Etheridge courageously challenged the Union soldiers’ mistreatment of the black refugees in the Freedmen’s Colony on Roanoke Island.
Following the war, Etheridge went to Texas and briefly served as Buffalo Soldier in the U.S. Army. Returning to Bodie Island, he bought land on Roanoke Island, married and became a father. Thus arose a need for a secure job, which were not plentiful at this time and place.
Etheridge proudly became Surfman No. 6 at the Bodie Island Life-Saving Station. He was part of what was known then as a “checkerboard crew,” that is to say some blacks among mostly white crews. However, no blacks were ranked higher than No. 6, the lowest position, but it was a start.
When Etheridge was selected as the keeper, it was not surprising that the white crew at Pea Island chose to quit rather than work under the authority of a black man. Even more tragically, soon after this appointment, the station burned down.
Etheridge was not to be deterred from his sworn duties. To form a crew, he had no other choice but to hire blacks from the nearby checkerboard stations. He then oversaw the rebuilding of the station. Notably, Frank Newcomb, the white USLSS assistant superintendent, who had originally recommended Etheridge, camped out where the new station was being built to prevent further trouble.
Etheridge’s crew had to prove themselves to a very tough audience. This is best illustrated by their most famous rescue of the schooner E. S. Newman.
On the night of October 11, 1896, the three-masted schooner ran hard aground somewhere near the Pea Island Station at 7 p.m. in the middle of one of the worst hurricanes at that time, with winds exceeding 100 miles per hour. These torrents of wind enraged the Atlantic, producing gigantic waves, pushing ocean waters clear to the Pamlico Sound. It’s said there was literally no visible land — the island was awash.
The ocean was too violent to launch the surfboat. So the crew manned the only other rescue equipment they had — the beach cart. This contained the Lyle gun, a small bronze mortar that could fire a projectile with a line attached to the stricken ship.
But when the cart reached the bottom of the ramp of the station, it was in several feet of overwash. With seemingly superhuman effort, the six surfmen and their one-ton cart, sloshed through the tide and spindrift until they reached the wreck site. Then the surfmen heard from the ship what was later officially described in the records as “the voice of gladdened hearts.”
Exhausted and desperate, the surfmen attempted to mound up sands below the water as a perch for Lyle gun. The 200-pound cannon simply sank. They were now out of rescue methods, but Keeper Etheridge proposed a bold, daring — and impossible? — plan. He asked for two volunteers. Two surfmen immediately stepped forward. One was Theodore Meekins, who had originally spotted the wreck. The plan was to tie a stout rope around the two men with the end of the rope anchored by the remaining crew. These two would carry another line with them and then swim out into the deadly breakers. Why two tied together? In case one drowned.
Indeed, they did go out. Miraculously, they reached the broken ship. The surfmen then tied the spare line to one of the sailors, and the remaining surfmen on shore successfully hauled him back. On board was Captain Sylvester A. Gardener, his wife, their three-year-old son and a crew of six. The child was taken ashore next, then his mother, then the rest of the crew.
One by one, with Captain Gardener being the last, all were safely off the wreck by 9 p.m., but they were still a long way from safety. The seemingly impossible rescue finally concluded at 1 a.m. when all reached the Pea Island Station. As at all stations, the survivors were given sustaining food, water and complimentary dry clothes always on-hand at all stations.
The station neighboring Pea Island to the north was Oregon Inlet, to the south was Chicamacomico (and for a while, New Inlet). These stations were manned by white men, and they interacted with Etheridge’s black men many times each day during the Beach Patrol. It was also common practice to assist your neighbor during an actual rescue.
From 1878 to 1906, Pea Island assisted or was assisted by Oregon Inlet, New Inlet or Chicamacomico 11 times for total wrecks and hundreds more for partial wrecks, groundings or warnings.
It was in these contacts that each race learned about the other, that they were only men, with much in common. The whites learned that the blacks were far more competent than had been given to believe by street talk. The blacks learned that the whites did not hate them, just the conditions and punishments inflicted on the South in their name by white northern politicians.
Both came to realize the realities, not the images. They knew each other by their same work, and soon knew them by name, their families and characteristics.
Only 20 years after the Civil War, positive race relations had begun deep in the South on the remote Outer Banks of North Carolina. That was well over 100 years ago, and they are lessons needed to be revisited today.