NewsBlack History Month


All-Black life-saving crew: Amazing story of heroism, risking their lives and fighting the odds!

Posted at 5:00 AM, Feb 18, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-18 20:51:32-05

MANTEO, N.C. - A story of perseverance, courage and dedication — that's what you'll find when you step into the Pea Island Cookhouse Museum in Manteo, North Carolina.

"You're actually standing in the dining room. This is where the men would eat," explains Darrell Collins, who is a member of the Pea Island Preservation Society.

He explains we're standing in the dining room, which helps explains the name: The Pea Island Cookhouse Museum.

This tiny museum is home to the actual cookhouse of the last Pea Island Station. They were side by side but kept separate in case a fire broke out so the life-saving station wouldn't burn down as well.

And the only thing left of that last historic station is the cookhouse, which is packed with a rich history.

Darrell points to a picture.

"Richard is here. This is Richard Etheridge. Even though he was born a slave, he wasn't treated like most slaves were. He worked right beside John B. Etheridge - helped building his wealth up, learned commercial fishing operation, became an expert waterman. Little did he know that all this was preparing him for later on in life, when he'd become the first African American keeper in the United States Life-Saving Service," he explained.

Etheridge first served in the Civil War with an all-Black unit of Union troops, but after the war, he joined the Life-Saving Service at Bodie Island, which had what's known as a "checkerboard crew," meaning whites and Blacks serving together.

Etheridge was the lowest-ranking surf-man there. His future would change following two tragic shipwrecks offshore the nearby Pea Island Life-Saving Station, as Darrell points out.

"And hundreds of people drown within eyesight of tourists on the beach. [It} became a national scandal, covered all the major newspapers all over the country: 'The United States Life-Saving Service on the Outer Banks was not competent.' So, they were actually looking for men who could perform their duties."

And Darrell's cousin, Joan - also a Pea Island Preservation member - adds, "And who did they choose? What did they say about him? This is in the historical record. If you look at it, he's the best surf-man on the coast."

Etheridge was chosen to take over as keeper or captain of the Pea Island Life-Saving Station. Joan says this was historic, but controversial.

"A very remarkable thing happened. You think of it - it's 1880, he gets asked to become the head person in charge of a neighboring station. Well, the first thing that happens is the whites that were at Pea Island Station couldn't - wouldn't, didn't - they're out of the picture. It's in the South - the surf-men and the keeper are essentially in the same quarters, you know, so they're reassigned. And Etheridge basically picks a couple of men that were at other stations that were checkerboard stations, he brings them. They get transferred to Pea Island, and then he picks a couple of skilled watermen that he knew, and that's in essence how this all-Black crew started."

The Pea Island Life-Saving Station is credited with hundreds of rescues, but the most celebrated came October 11, 1896. There was a hurricane, and the schooner the ES Newman was caught in it and ran aground. Etheridge and his crew went to work in the most perilous conditions - 20 ft. waves breaking on the shore, cold water, and the Newman is breaking apart, all kinds of debris in the water.

Darrell says because of the conditions, they had few options.

"Although Richard Etheridge was a good problem solver, he asked for volunteers. I don't think they knew what they were volunteering for. Two men stepped forward, and he asked them to tie a rope around them, secure it to the surf-men on the beach and to swim out to the ES Newman. All nine lives were saved aboard that doomed ship."

The museum includes an up-close look at a rescue boat, which Darrell points out people are allowed to climb into.

"This is an actual boat - this is an actual surf-boat. This boat here is over 100 years old."

You'll also see this history on display boards, just a few miles away at the entrance to the Roanoke Island Aquarium, where you'll also find the gravesites for Etheridge and his family, which were discovered during the construction of the aquarium.

Joan is passionate about getting the word out.

"And so in an area like the Outer Banks - major tourist area - people don't know this history. So, it brings, you know — it's an opportunity to tell a very inspiring and engaging story, to make it known."

And that's exactly what they're doing. Just last week at the Coast Guard Station in Portsmouth during a Black History Month event, members of the Pea lsland Preservation Society were sharing the story of Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Life-Saving Station.

It's personal, as well, for Joan. Her dad, Herbert Collins, was part of the last Pea Island crew before it was decommissioned in 1947.

"People didn't know that this station existed, and still today, some don't really know the history. So, that's what we are trying to do. And we always say - what a great way to bring attention to history that's not told, that's so significant through this story."

Tomorrow, February 19th, you can hear first-hand from the Pea Island Preservation members in this story, who are descendants of the Pea Island Lifesavers. They're doing a special presentation: Freedman. Surfman. Heroes, at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island at 1pm. They are also doing a similar program at the same time, a week from tomorrow at the Museum of The Albermarle.

If you would like more information on the Pea Island Cookhouse Museum, including how to volunteer or offer support in other ways, click here:
Pea Island Cookhouse Museum

Related: Afro-Union Civil War soldiers and Sailors honored at Chesapeake memorial site