The legacy of Keeper Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island lifesavers

Published 7:56 am Wednesday, January 24, 2024

By Joan L. Collins

Today is an important time to remember the legacy of Keeper Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers. On January 24, 1880, Etheridge, who grew up enslaved on Roanoke Island and fought with the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War, became the first Black person in the nation to command a U.S. Life-Saving Service (USLSS) station. The discovery and subsequent investigation of a shipwreck close to the USLSS station at Pea Island, that had not been discovered while the surfmen were on duty led to a recommendation that “Keeper Geo. C. Daniels be removed immediately; cause, false swearing, and his personal acknowledgment of his unfitness for the position. That surfmen L. B. Tillett be discharged; cause, neglect of patrol. That surfman Charles L. Midgett be discharged for cause, not competent for lack of experience as admitted his testimony.”

The final report dated January 16, 1880 led to the appointment of Richard Etheridge to the position of Keeper. The title Keeper is the official title used by the USLSS for the commander or the person in charge of a station. The investigative report making Etheridge’s appointment official was stamped and approved on January 24, 1880. The approval accepted the recommendation that “Richard Etheridge, colored (now a surfmen at Life Saving Station No. 16, Dist. No. 6) be appointed as Keeper of Life Saving Station No. 17, Dist. No. 6 in place of Geo. C, Daniels.” The findings describe Etheridge as having a “strong robust physique,” and being “intelligent, and able to read and write sufficiently well to keep the journal of a station,” and as being “one of the best [surfmen] on this part of the coast of North Carolina.” At the time the recommendation for his appointment was made he worked as a surfman at the neighboring Bodie Island lifesaving station. Blacks who worked as surfmen in the USLSS were the lowest in rank, and those who cared for horses, cleaned and cooked, in addition to their other duties.

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Etheridge’s selection was remarkable, especially considering his appointment occurred not long after the end of the Civil War and he had grown up enslaved. His selection also marked the beginning of a sixty-seven year period, which includes the Jim Crow era in the South, the Pea Island station was staffed primarily by Blacks. Year after year, men, like my own father, Lt. Herbert M. Collins, proudly served. At the time of his death in March 2010, a USCG release described his passing as “The Death of a Distinguished Coast Guard Legend,” a title he earned, undoubtedly by the examples set by the legendary Keeper Etheridge and others who worked at the Pea Island station before him. He is best known for being at the Pea Island the duration of World War II and he helping to decommission the station in March 1947. The story of Freedmen, Surfmen, and Heroes,™ the words surrounding our new checkered life-ring logo, is the story of Blacks who served at the Pea Island station from January 24, 1880, when Etheridge first took to command until March 5, 1947, when my father shut and locked the doors of the station for the very last time.

Today also calls us to remember the challenges Keeper Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers faced daily because they were not white. Their one hundred year delay in being awarded the prestigious U.S. Coast Guard Gold Life-Saving Medal for their most famous rescue – the daring rescue of nine people aboard the shipwrecked schooner E.S. Newman during a hurricane – is poignant reminder of this. Our motto, “Their fight is our fight.” is intended to be a bold reminder of the challenges Etheridge and others faced, and during a period in which people were labeled as strictly as being either Black or white to determine what rights and opportunities they were afforded. It is also symbolic of time when a lifesaving station that employed both Black and white surfmen was commonly referred to as having a “checkerboard crew.” On the Outer Banks, there were a handful of such stations, including the Pea Island station, before Etheridge took command.

As we remember Etheridge’s selection as Keeper, today is a reminder of the importance of sharing stories and information associated with the historic station, stories such as those reflected in the unidentified photograph accompanying this release. The stunning photograph shows two white men, who appear to be the ones in charge, sitting in front of an all-Black crew shown standing behind them. The photograph is believed to have been taken sometime in the late 1930s, and after George Pruden, a Black commander of the Pea Island station, had retired. Pruden would later contend the actions which prompted his decision to retire were motivated by others’ desire to place a white commander in charge of the Pea Island station.

Ironically, a copy of the photograph first came to my attention a few years ago, but it is fuzzy at this point as to exactly when or how. During the early stages of my involvement with the Pea Island Preservation Society, Inc., I recall seeing the photograph, but can’t recall the details. I remember thinking the photograph confirmed my father’s accounting of reporting to white commanders who were in charge at the Pea Island station during his early service there and before his uncle, Maxie M. Berry Sr., was placed in charge. Given my father is not shown in the group of men standing, I speculated the photograph was taken sometime in the late 1930s before he first reported to the Pea Island station in February 1940. At the time, however, I was new in my journey to learn and do more to raise awareness of this history, but made a mental note to learn more about it one day.

Fast forward to the spring of 2023. You can imagine how delighted I was when the photograph came to my attention again. I was thrilled to be invited to the home of Jackie Wenberg, who showed me the photograph along with photographs of other Midgett family members. She was pleased to learn I thought one of the individuals, the man on the left, was Palmer Midgett and the other on the right, William L. Scarborough, two individuals whose names are reflected in my father’s USCG file as being his superiors when he first reported to the Pea Island station. She quickly agreed one of the individuals, the man to the left was her uncle, Palmer Midgett, and the other likely Scarborough. However, she admitted she knew little else about the photograph other than it was found amongst the items in the home she was living, a home her uncle Palmer and his parents once lived. Nonetheless, I was thankful to see the photograph again, and that she voiced no objection when I told her I planned to write about it one day when the timing was right.

Releasing the photograph on this special day, January 24th, the date of Etheridge’s selection as Keeper is intended to encourage the sharing of information, especially new information, or information that is not widely known regarding the Pea Island station before, during, and after Etheridge’s January 24, 1880, appointment as Keeper. Those who have such information are requested to contact the Pea Island Preservation Society, Inc. (PIPSI), by sending an email to:  friends@peaislandpreservationsociety.com.

Joan L. Collins is the director of outreach and education at Pea Island Preservation Society, Inc.

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