March 9, 2018
New Painting Brings Surfmen’s History to Life
bearded men, both in blue U.S. Life-Saving Service uniforms, are
standing next to one another on an empty beach in front of a boathouse.
The white man holds an anchor with a rope, the black man holds an oar.
Their expressions are serious; they’re working — together.
The James Melvin painting was unveiled Sunday in Manteo as the
highlight of the program, “Freedmen, Surfmen, Heroes: The Unique Story
of the Pea Island Lifesavers,” honoring the history of Pea Island
Life-Saving Station and its keeper Richard Etheridge, the only black
keeper to serve in the history of the lifesaving service. It depicts
Patrick Etheridge, keeper of Creeds Hill station on Hatteras Island,
and Richard Etheridge standing side-by-side because, despite the
post-Civil War racism, Outer Banks surfmen, black and white, worked
The painting, which Melvin has donated, illustrates the mutual respect
and cooperation their work engendered, said Joan Collins, secretary of
the nonprofit Pea Island Preservation Society.
“Think about it,” Collins said, leaning toward the children listening
intently from the pews at Haven Creek Missionary Baptist Church, a
156-year-old black parish. “In the 1800s, shortly after the Civil
War, during Jim Crow laws in the South, right here, on the Outer Banks,
black and white were both surfmen. Who would also believe that they
worked together to save lives?”
In 1896, Richard Etheridge led his all-black crew in the death-defying
– and successful – rescue of all passengers and crew of the E.S. Newman
in a raging hurricane. Twelve years earlier, Patrick Etheridge,
as well, was involved in a dramatic rescue of passengers on the wreck
of the Ephraim Williams off Hatteras Island.
Patrick Etheridge and other Ephraim Williams lifesavers were awarded a
gold medal in April 1885 – one year after the rescue. Richard Etheridge
and his surfmen at Pea Island were posthumously awarded a gold medal
for the E.S. Newman rescue in 1996 — 100 years after the rescue.
Collins, along with her first cousin, Darrell Collins, an acclaimed
Wright brothers historian who recently retired from the National Park
Service, and popular lifesaving station interpreters Linda Molloy and
James Charlet, who depict a keeper’s wife and a keeper, created the Pea
Island program to engage Outer Banks children while teaching them Pea
Island’s unique history. In the year since, the interactive program has
been a hit with tourists and locals of all ages, with the team doing
numerous presentations at area schools and the North Carolina Aquarium
on Roanoke Island.
“The kids absolutely love it,” Collins said in a later interview. “We
thought of it as a way to get kids just to think of what fairness
means, what economic opportunity means, what diversity means. They get
Darrell Collins, who became famous as a park ranger for his talks about
the Wright brothers’ first flight, used his skills to captivate the
children in the story of Richard Etheridge, who was born a slave on
Roanoke Island in 1842, likely the son of his master, John Etheridge.
As a boy, he was one of the few blacks who was taught to read and
write, and as he got older, he worked as a waterman. During the Civil
War, he joined to Union Army, where his courage and leadership skills
After the war, he got a job as a surfman at Pea Island, and because of
his exceptional abilities, he was later appointed as the station’s
keeper, where he served until age 58, when he died, likely of malaria.
Molloy told the compelling tale of the Newman rescue, and Charlet provided fascinating details of a surfmen’s duties.
Darrell Collins strolled into the audience and asked children to hold
signs, each with a different word: courage, honor, brave, dedication,
teamwork, perseverance, determination.
“Who inspires you?” Collins asked the children.
“Rosa Parks,” one girl answered.
Others named Martin Luther King, Jesus, “daddy” and Michael Jordan.
Etheridge’s life, Collins told them, served as examples of the qualities named on the children’s signs.
“He inspired others to follow in his footsteps,” he said.
But over the years, much of the history of the Freedmen’s Colony on
Roanoke Island, of which Collins’ family is descended, and the Pea
Island station has been unrecognized, even by some members of the black
community on Roanoke Island.
Ruth Lewis, 79, said that her grandfather was Theodore Meekins, the
first surfman to plunge into the sea during the Newman rescue. But she
said that her grandfather died when she was young, and her family
rarely talked about the rescue.
“They knew about it, but it’s just come out now, more than ever,” Lewis
said after the presentation. “I knew my grandmother, but when you’re so
young, you don’t ask. Not even my father talked about it.”
Pastor Ray Hill, who has worked at Haven Creek for eight years, said
that he has noticed that there are a lot of connections in the
community. But it doesn’t seem as if local children know enough of
“Everybody is kin to each other – black and white,” he said about
knowledge of local history. “But it seems to me it should be further
along by now … (And) the rest of the country doesn’t know the
commitment of Pea Island. It seems like it’s been hidden for so long.”
Until about 40 years ago, the graves of Richard Etheridge and his
family were under concrete on the north end of Roanoke Island, where
the Navy had built an airstrip during World War II. It wasn’t until the
North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island was being built that the
graves, the headstones laid flat on the ground, were rediscovered.
Today, the graveyard is encircled by a fence at the entrance of the
facility. In 2016, the aquarium unveiled interpretative signage about
Etheridge, the Freedmen’s Colony, Pea Island and the U.S. Life-Saving
After much effort by the late Dellerva Collins, Darrell Collins’ mother
and a longtime Manteo town commissioner who died in 2005, grant money
was found to relocate the Pea Island cookhouse to a site across the
street from the Haven Creek Baptist Church, now known as Collins Park.
The building was restored into the Pea Island Cookhouse Museum, and
some lifesaving equipment and original signboard from the E.S. Newman
is on display. A statue of Richard Etheridge stands nearby.
Joan Collins’ father, Herb Collins, worked at the Pea Island station
when he was in the Coast Guard. He turned the key for the time when the
station closed in 1947. And her great-great uncle participated in the
Newman rescue, her great-great grandfather had served under Etheridge
in the years after the rescue and her great uncle was the last black
keeper at Pea Island.
Darrell Collins also has a family connection to the station. His
great-great grandfather served under Etheridge and participated in the
Newman rescue. His father served in the Coast Guard as well. Between
them, the cousins say, there’s 400 years of combined service in their
In the near future, as founders of the Pea Island Preservation Society,
the Collinses’ plan to do more marketing and to improve the educational
program, with a focus on the shared stories of the black and white
families on the Outer Banks.
“I don’t believe that the Cookhouse Museum is going to gain momentum
unless we offer something to the community – to teach the story in an
inclusive way,” Joan Collins said. “I think for the community to
embrace the Pea Island history, we need to bring out the message of
It’s an effort that Dellerva Collins, the founder of the Freedmen’s
Colony Coalition, got behind years ago, but she had her share of
frustration at the slow progress.
2002, she was instrumental in getting a town resolution passed
requesting that the new bridge across the Croatan Sound be named in
honor of Capt. Richard Etheridge. Manteo was the only town on the Outer
Banks that came out in favor of the Etheridge name instead of Virginia
Dare, the English baby born in 1587 on Roanoke Island. Even then, some
people were openly dismissive at the idea of a bridge being named after
a black man. And Collins, in turn, expressed annoyance that yet another
thing would be named after The Lost Colony.
But on Feb. 20, Dellerva Collins got her way, albeit at a smaller
scale. At a ceremony in Rodanthe – not far from the former location of
the Pea Island Life-Saving Station, the state Department of
Transportation dedicated the new Capt. Richard Etheridge Bridge.