Richard Etheridge: An Outer Banks Hero
When Richard Etheridge was appointed keeper of the Pea Island Life-Saving Station on January 24, 1880, he was the first black man to lead a crew of surfmen in the U.S. Lifesaving Service.
Even with the Outer Banks’ rightful place as a land of firsts, there may never have been a native citizen as groundbreaking as Etheridge was in his time.
He only lived 58 years – the last 20 at Pea Island. But he started out as a slave on a farm and ended as a commander of an important federal outpost. He and his all-black crew were responsible for one of the gutsiest ocean rescues ever conducted. Plunging into the seething sea at night with little more than a rope, the men saved all the passengers and crew on the wrecked schooner E.S. Newman in the throes of a October 1896 hurricane.
Perhaps most remarkably, Etheridge lived his entire life as a successful black male in the South during a time of slavery, reconstruction, lynching and race riots.
“What is also significant,” says Joan Collins, secretary of the nonprofit Pea Island Preservation Society, “is that he goes from the lowest in rank to being promoted to keeper of the Pea Island station. I think that Etheridge had obviously proven himself.”
Collins has close ties to the story of the Pea Island station. Her father, Herbert Collins, was a Coast Guardsman from Manteo and locked the station for the last time when it was decommissioned in 1947. Even so, growing up in Maryland, she had not heard much about Etheridge. She would later discover that she wasn’t alone and that in fact, most people had not – even those who called the Outer Banks home.
It even took the U.S. Coast Guard, the successor of the Lifesaving Service, an entire century to recognize the valor of the Pea Island crew in the E.S. Newman rescue, awarding a posthumous Gold Lifesaving Medal in 1996.
Collins, along with her first cousin, retired National Park Service historian Darrell Collins, is striving to bring Etheridge’s inspiring life story to the fore where it belongs.
Now living on Roanoke Island, Joan Collins believes that Richard Etheridge is far more than a local historical figure, an Outer Banks hero, or even a symbol of black achievement.
Etheridge, with the force of his character, was a trailblazer. It was respect for his experience as a waterman, his toughness in battle, his skill as a surfman and his integrity that earned him his keeper appointment. But it was Etheridge’s savvy about the political sensitivity of his position that made him and his black Pea Island crew too good for the government to lose.
“Richard Etheridge opened the doors for so many African-Americans in this area to join the Coast Guard,” says Pea Island Preservation Society’s Collins. “For 67 years, Pea Island was staffed by African-Americans. Had he not been who he was and set the example he set, that would not have happened.”
In 1880, the Lifesaving Service was under heavy political fire after losses of 206 lives and $500,000 in property off the Outer Banks in less than two years. In fact, Etheridge’s predecessor was fired because of an embarrassing failed rescue.
Etheridge, who had served in “checkerboard” integrated crews at nearby stations, was recommended as keeper by Revenue Cutter Service Lt. Charles Shoemaker, who called Etheridge “one of the best surfmen on this part of the coast of North Carolina.”
“His station earned the reputation of ‘one of the tautest on the Carolina Coast,’” according to the U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office, “with its keeper well-known as one of the most courageous and ingenious lifesavers in the Service.”
It is worth noting that Etheridge was keeper during Reconstruction, a volatile and dangerous time in race relations. Two years before he died in 1900, riots broke out in Wilmington N.C. when white supremacists violently removed black citizens in positions of power. Still, Pea Island continued to be staffed almost entirely by African-Americans for 47 more years after Etheridge died, a legacy that quietly branched far beyond the remote Outer Banks.
“These keepers and these surfmen were highly respected in their communities,” Collins points out. “We’re in the South, and that station continued to thrive. Intertwined in all of this is how these surfmen performed their duties without having any modern technology. They saved thousands and thousands of people.”
Born in 1842 on a Roanoke Island farm owned by John B. Etheridge, Richard Etheridge was rumored to be his master’s offspring, largely because he was treated almost as family. Although no documentation proves his genetic heritage, Richard Etheridge’s association with the family gave him a lifelong benefit few slaves had – Etheridge learned how to read and write.
Growing up, he honed his skills as waterman. When the Civil War started, Etheridge served in the Union Army, earning a promotion to sergeant. At one point, Etheridge stood up for black residents of the Freemen’s Colony, writing a letter to the Union commissioner protesting that white soldiers were breaking into homes and stealing their possessions. He signed it “in behalf of humanity.”
Etheridge later married and had a daughter, but besides his meticulous recordings in station logbooks, he left behind very little writing about his life. Slowly but surely, however, he is emerging from the shadows of history as he is boosted by the Pea Island society and previous supporters.
Until authors David Wright and David Zoby’s book Fire on the Beach was published in 2002, not much was known about Pea Island history. Even the graves of Etheridge and his family had been concealed under concrete on the north end of Roanoke Island since World War II where the Navy built an airstrip.
Uncovered about 40 years ago during construction of the Roanoke Island Aquarium, a fence was erected around the graves near the aquarium entrance in 2016 and interpretive signage has been installed to explain the history. And across from the now-restored Pea Island Cookhouse Museum at Collins Park in Manteo, a life-sized bronze statue of Etheridge depicts the keeper holding an oar of a rescue boat.
In another more recent honor, the new Captain Richard Etheridge Bridge, located near where Pea Island Life-saving Station once stood, was dedicated in February. The bridge in Etheridge’s honor replaces the temporary bridge built following Hurricane Irene in 2011.
Joan Collins says she’s encouraged by the forward movement of her mission to share Etheridge’s story. As proof, she points to the demand for and popularity of the Pea Island society’s free “Freedman, Surfmen, Heroes” program, as well as the positive reception of artist James Melvin’s new painting and poster depicting Etheridge standing next to a white surfman.
The painting’s caption reads, “Joined by upbringing, divided by race and rebellion, reunited by heroic service, ‘in behalf of humanity.’”
Still, Collins notes that fundraising is a constant challenge and adds that she hopes to take her efforts to a new level by involving young folks in the outreach. Perhaps by teaching them to be historical interpreters, she suggests, in the process they can be promoting unity, inclusiveness and life skills.
“We need money, we need helpers and we need people who are excited,” Collins says about maintaining the project’s momentum. “It’s important to the Outer Banks – and it’s important to the state and to the nation.”
No doubt, Etheridge’s life story is ripe for the telling, and worth sharing for future generations. ♦
Catherine Kozak has worked as a writer and reporter on the Outer Banks since 1995. She lives in Nags Head and enjoys running in the woods with her dog, Rosie.