Saturday, July 28, 2007

Pea Island: US Coast Guard’s African-American Roots

Charlottesville, Va.- I’m back from a few days vacation on the outer banks of North Carolina. Wednesday I stopped at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. That’s when I saw this historical marker.

(Photo July 25, 2007)

“The Pea Island Life Saving Station”

You are near the site of the Pea Island Life Saving Station. The United States Life Saving Service built the station in 1878, and when a crew was chosen in 1880, men were selected not only for discipline and dedication, but also for color – they were black. Until then the Life Saving Service generally hired blacks only as stable hands and boat tenders.

Between 1880 and 1947 all Pea Island crews were black. They comprised the only all-black crews in the history of the Life Saving Service or its successor, the U.S. Coast Guard. The Pea Island surfmen saved more than 600 lives, and earned a reputation as the “tautest” crew on the Carolina coast.

What's the local connection? I was wearing a U.S. Coast Guard "Shield of Freedom" shirt when I delivered the Jefferson School speech July 16. But our own Jefferson School hasn't received official recognition of their contributions to Virginia's first public schools.

U. S. Coast Guard: A Historical Overview

The United States Coast Guard is this nation's oldest and its premier maritime agency. The history of the Service is very complicated because it is the amalgamation of five Federal agencies. These agencies, the Revenue Cutter Service, the Lighthouse Service, the Steamboat Inspection Service, the Bureau of Navigation, and the Lifesaving Service, were originally independent, but had overlapping authorities and were shuffled around the government. They sometimes received new names, and they were all finally united under the umbrella of the Coast Guard. The multiple missions and responsibilities of the modern Service are directly tied to this diverse heritage and the magnificent achievements of all of these agencies.

Bill that created USCG, May 26, 1913

African Americans in the United States Coast Guard

The primary duty of crews at Life-Saving Stations was to aid ships in distress . African Americans saved many lives and preserved property in so doing. The story of Richard Etheridge, first African American keeper of Pea Island, North Carolina Lifeboat Station, is an inspiring first chapter in the celebrated history of the lifeboat station that was built during the winter of 1878-79 and initially manned by whites. From the time of Etheridge’s assuming command in 1880, Pea Island was staffed by African Americans until the station was closed in 1947, after which the area became a wildlife refuge. […]

Appointed Keeper of Pea Island Life-Saving Station on January 24, 1880, Richard Etheridge became the first African American keeper in the Service. He was born in 1842 and raised near Pea Island, where he became an expert fisherman and surfman. Soon after Etheridge’s appointment, the station burned down. Determined to execute his duties with expert commitment, Etheridge supervised the construction of a new station on the original site. He also developed rigorous lifesaving drills that enabled his crew to tackle all lifesaving tasks. His station earned the reputation of "one of the tautest on the Carolina Coast," with its keeper well-known as one of the most courageous and ingenious lifesavers in the Service.

On October 11, 1896, Etheridge’s rigorous training drills proved invaluable. The three-masted schooner, the E. S. Newman, was caught in a terrifying storm. En route from Providence, Rhode Island to Norfolk, Virginia, the vessel was blown south, 100 miles off course, and slammed onto the beach two miles south of the Pea Island Station. The storm was so severe that Etheridge had suspended normal beach patrol that day. But the alert eyes of surfman Theodore Meekins saw the first distress flare and Meekins immediately notified Etheridge.

The crew was rounded up and launched the surfboat. Battling the strong tide and sweeping currents, the dedicated lifesavers struggled to make their way to a point opposite the schooner, only to find there was no dry land. The daring, quick-witted Etheridge tied two of his strongest surfmen together and connected them to shore by a long line. They fought their way through the roaring breaks and finally reached the schooner. The seemingly inexhaustible Pea Island crewmembers journeyed through the perilous waters ten times and rescued every one of the nine persons on board. For this action the Pea Island Life-Saving Station was awarded the Gold Life-Saving Medal. On February 29, 1992, the Coast Guard Cutter Pea Island was commissioned at Norfolk, Virginia, in memory of the African American crews at Pea Island, including Richard Etheridge and his lifesavers.

The Pea Island Legacy

And so it was that CAPT Richard Etheridge became the Keeper at Pea Island. But the day he arrived to assume the keepership, the white surfmen abandoned the station, unwilling to serve under a black man. Other black surfmen from other district stations were transferred to Pea Island and it became the only all-black lifesaving station in the nation, serving the nation from 1880 until 1947.

Despite early resistance to the point where the station was burned to the ground, apparently by an arsonist, it did not mark the end of the all-black crew. Rather, the station thrived. Under Etheridge's leadership, the station was rebuilt the following season. Furthermore, he instilled in his men the military rigor necessary to do their job to the best of their ability. Etheridge not only followed orders to the letter, he expected the same of his men.

These former expert fishermen and Civil War veterans trained day and night. Etheridge drove them like soldiers, relentlessly drilling them with the lifesaving equipment, quizzing them on their knowledge of procedure and ensuring that the station was kept in impeccable condition. Etheridge would unhitch the mules from the heavy surfboats and then have his crew pull the boats through the soft sand by hand. The Pea Island crews became known for their daring in the surf and their commitment to duty, often under perilous circumstances. They were considered to be the best lifesaving crew in the Service.

A Century-Old Coast Guard Rescue Continues to Touch Lives, May 1998

Coast Guard Cmdr. Stephen W. Rochon didn't like history. Fairfield Fire Chief Daniel Gardiner didn't know his family history. But a dramatic rescue of a white sea captain's family by an all-black Coast Guard crew off the North Carolina coast more than a century ago brought them together. […]

Gardiner's uncle and grandparents were among nine people pulled from the wreck of the sailing ship E.S. Newman by the men of Pea Island rescue station in 1896, a rescue he learned of only after Rochon tracked him down during his research of the history of blacks in the Coast Guard.

"They were driven by a force more powerful than any of us can realize-it was the force of God's love for people, no matter what the color of their skin," Rochon told a luncheon crowd at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy Officer's Club, "Wouldn't it be great if the bond they shared at that moment, and the bonds their descendants have today, could be felt by everyone?"

Gardiner said he was amazed to learn that station keeper Capt. Richard Etheridge made his men train 10 hours a day, seven days a week. They would unhitch their mules and pull the boat wagon through the soft sand and swim miles through the cold waves.

"These people felt that because they faced such (prejudice), they'd better be sure they knew what they were doing... and because they did, I'm standing here today," Gardiner said. "I owe everything to the Pea Island sailors." […]

"Other less daring rescues by non-blacks were rewarded with gold and silver medals," Rochon said. One rescue station crew of that era won a lifesaving medal for a failed rescue in gale force winds, which are not as intense as a hurricane. Another was awarded a medal for retrieving the body of a drowned boy. "Based on this information, we decided to go for the gold."

In concert with a North Carolina schoolgirl who was working on the rescue as part of a school project, and two graduate students working on a history of the station, he convinced the medals committee that the Pea Island crew deserved the honor. […]

"There's a message for everyone, regardless of race or ethnicity," Rochon said. "Pea Island belongs to all of us."

Story courtesy of the New London, CT Day Newspaper

Station Pea Island, North Carolina, Coast Guard Station #177 historical photos

U.S. Coast Guard Historian's Officemore links


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Hawkins
I have a question about Capt Richard Etheridge, do you have any news on his families roots his Mother and Father, Siblings etc.

I have Etheridge's in my family and they are basically all deceased and I am researching the family tree.

Lyndale Pettus

10/13/2008 9:20 PM  

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