Outer Banks, and especially Hatteras Island, is well known for its long
history of ships and shipwrecks. Lesser known, however, is the history
of Richard Etheridge and his all-black crew who not only performed one
of the greatest rescues in the history of Hatteras Island, but whose
story is also a testament to the cooperation between black and white
surfmen at a time in America’s history when this was rare.
Members of the Pea Island Preservation Society
have created a presentation to honor this cooperation among surfmen,
which began just South of Rodanthe at what was once the United States
Life-Saving Service station. The goal of their program is, ultimately,
to “further the message of early positive race relations and the
benefits of diversity.”
The precursor to the United States Coast Guard,
the U.S. Life-Saving Service was responsible for vigilantly monitoring
our nation’s shores and protecting citizens from the frightening
unknowns of the sea. Despite facing serious discrimination, a crew of
African American surfmen, led by Richard Etheridge, not only remained
faithful to their duties, but also performed one of the most heroic
rescues on the open ocean.
As the descendants of a man who worked as a
surfman during this monumental period, Joan and Darrell Collins are
cousins with a personal connection to the Pea Island Life-Saving
When they discovered the exciting facts of their
relatives’ past, they were determined to make the heroic history of
these African American lifesavers known.
As members of the Pea Island Preservation
Society, Inc., the Collins cousins, along with James Charlet portraying
Keeper James of the Life-Saving Service and his wife Linda Molloy
portraying the Keeper’s wife (both in period-correct dress), have
created an interactive presentation entitled, “Freedmen, Surfmen, and
Heroes™.” The program first debuted at the North Carolina Aquarium in
Manteo in February of last year. Since then, the team has presented
their research 14 times at the aquarium and subsequently to every
elementary school in Dare County.
Fourth graders at Cape Hatteras Elementary School
were engaged in a vibrant storytelling experience on Tuesday as
presenters related the tale of Etheridge and his crew’s bravery and
Afterwards, students were prompted to identify
some qualities of these surfmen which made their noble pursuits
possible such as honor, dedication, service, teamwork, determination,
bravery, and perseverance.
Students then identified each quality with a
particular surfman in Etheridge’s crew, and were awarded ceremonial
medals of honor.
The interactive experience of the presentation
served to both keep students engaged while also teaching them the
importance of diversity.
The Pea Island Preservation Society, Inc.’s
presentation at Cape Hatteras Elementary School on Tuesday was
particularly special, presenters said, because Richard Etheridge and
his crew’s historic rescue occurred just off the coast of Hatteras
After the Civil War ended, Richard Etheridge
returned to his home on Roanoke Island and got a job at the Bodie
Island Life-Saving Station, just one of 29 that were to be built along
the North Carolina’s coast.
Etheridge was given the position of Surfman No.
6, the lowest rank among lifesavers, despite his lifetime of experience
on the water. It was the job of his and his fellow surfmen to monitor
the beach every day from sunup to sundown from a lookout tower. In the
evenings, these same surfmen would patrol the beach on foot, walking
three miles in one direction until meeting another patrolling surfman
with which they would exchange tokens before walking the three miles
Patrols persisted no matter the weather
conditions, and the presenters suggested that it was this persistence
which bonded the surfmen together across racial barriers. The stations
would also often come together to assist each other during rescue
missions, creating a sense of unity among all-white and all-black
In 1880, Etheridge was promoted to the highest
position at the Pea Island Life-Saving Station as Keeper, but even then
the prejudice continued. All the white surfmen at the Pea Island
Station refused to work for him and the station was suspiciously burned
down. Etheridge did not let these circumstances deter him, however, and
he built a new station at Pea Island with the help of his all-black
Etheridge and his crew are most known for their
heroic rescue of the crew and passengers aboard the E.S. Newman, a
three-masted schooner, during a hurricane in 1896.
When the boat began sinking just off the shore of
Hatteras Island, the surfman on duty in the Watchtower at the Pea
Island Station was barely able to make out a flare going up over the
ferocious waves. Etheridge and his crew arrived on the scene and
rescued Captain Silvester Gardner and his entire crew by miraculously
swimming to the wreck and retrieving the shipwrecked crew one at a time.
Despite their heroism, the crew never received
recognition for this rescue during their lifetime. Indeed, it wasn’t
until 100 years after the E.S. Newman rescue, in 1996, that the Coast
Guard awarded them the Gold Life-Saving Medal.
Etheridge’s legacy continued, despite this lack
of recognition, as the Pea Island Life-Saving Station continued to be
manned by African American keepers and crew for the next 67 years until
that station closed in 1947.
Though Etheridge died in 1900, he remains an
example of service, dedication and perseverance. The new bridge located
just south of Pea Island is set to be dedicated to him in a ceremony
soon to be announced by NCDOT.
Joan and Darrell Collins, along with Keeper James
and his wife Linda, believe Etheridge’s story is worth being told,
especially to young children, because it showcases the power of
difference as well as perseverance in the face of discrimination.
“It’s always important to tell stories like this,
because it shows the importance of diversity; I think it’s just pretty
special,” Joan Collins said.