The Legend of Newt Knight
If I close my eyes, I can still see him today, just as he looked back in 1955 when I was four years old. He stands forever in my memory in front of the Strand Theater, with his white beard down to the bib of his tattered overalls, selling peanuts and chewing gum and candy bars. That old man scared the bejeebers out of me every time Momma took us to watch the cowboy movies on Saturday afternoons.
It was a measure of courage to approach him, clutching your nickel in your sweaty palm, while he studied you with those old-man, blue-gray eyes. With my heart racing, he would pluck up my coin with his long yellowed nails and then examine it carefully before dropping it into his coin sack. The very second he handed me the little brown paper bag of peanuts I took off, fleeing back to my mother, dizzy from a peril survived.
It was decades later, long after his death in 1956, that I learned who the man was. His name was Thomas Jefferson Knight and he carried secrets that could turn my hometown of Laurel on its ear. I wasn’t’ the only one he scared. He had a few grownups shaking in their boots as well.
He was around long before Laurel existed, before the sawmills came, when Jones County was wild frontier. The farms then were small, remote, and self-sufficient. Most of the people were poor, with an independent streak a mile wide. They didn’t take kindly to authority of any kind, political or military or religious.
Over his lifetime, Tom witnessed it all—the disappearance of the great pine forests, the arrival of industry and commerce, and more significantly, Tom Knight had a first-row seat to the twin conundrums of Jones County. I’m talking about our conflicted history pertaining to Confederate patriotism and racial purity.
I guess there was plenty reason to fear him. That old man knew the ground from whence we sprang.
Thomas Jefferson Knight was the last surviving child of the infamous Captain Newt Knight, the so-called Emperor of the Free Republic of Jones. He began his life as a child raised hidden away deep in the swamps, watched over by a fierce army of renegades who had sworn dying allegiance to Tom’s bigger-than-life father.
We learn much about Newton Knight from the little book Tom wrote idolizing his father. He sold it for a dollar a copy along with his peanuts on the streets of Laurel. In Tom’s book, his father was a bona fide hero. At the beginning of the Civil War, Newt was a small farmer living near what would one day become Laurel. While serving in the Confederate Army, he came to the conclusion that the affair was a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight, and decided he would have none of it. He deserted, returned home and gathered up a band of like-minded men, exerting military control over much of the county. Tom proudly boasted that Newt’s army fed the war widows, protected their farms from the Confederate cavalry’s foragers, and saved many from outright destitution. In Tom’s opinion, there was many a Jones Countian who worshiped this Robin Hood of the Piney Woods.
But Tom didn’t write down everything in his little book. There was a sizeable portion of his father’s story that Tom would just as soon people forgot.
The truth is, Newt’s rebellion didn’t end with the War. He also had some very controversial practices when it came to race. In addition to his white family into which Tom was born in 1860, Newt raised up a mixed-race family with Rachael, a former slave of his grandfather. There was established for eternity in Jones County two branches on the family, one known as the White Knights and the other Black Knights.
Not that such a thing was unheard of in those days. This wasn’t the Old South populated by rich planters, plantation houses and remote slave quarters. The fact is, very few Piney Woods inhabitants owned slaves. As for those who did, well, let’s just say it was understood that when there was only one field in which to work, and one table from which to eat, and only one or two shacks in which to sleep, Blacks and Whites were bound to share a unique kind of intimacy. The boundaries were not as rigid as many of many of my fellow Jones Countians would like to believe. Folks just didn’t flaunt it.
What I have told you up to this point can be pretty well documented, and has been by a legion of part-time Jones County historians.
But now I get to the part where beliefs diverge and a strongly expressed difference of opinion might get you shot. For instance, was Jones County of Civil War a true bastion of Confederacy or was it an independent nation or was it nothing more than a no-man’s land terrorized by renegades, outlaws and drunks?
Was Newt Knight a patriot, a traitor, or a mere opportunist?
When it came to his relationship with Blacks, was he an emancipator, a bigot, a lover of black women, or nothing more than a rapist?
I have heard each of these viewpoints expressed with great conviction by Jones Countians. Through listening to countless stories told by both Knights and non-Knights, by both Black and White, I’ve learned some people hold their beliefs about Newt Knight’s legacy with great fervor. I’ve been cussed out more than once for suggesting an opinion that ran counter to what folks have been raised up with.
So, it’s with some trepidation that I am going to share with you over the next few columns a few of the rich, complex and often very contradictory stories that I’ve been told. Since Tom is no longer around to set me straight, I can’t vouch for what is factually true or false. But what I can guarantee is that the stories that surround Newt Knight, shaped the customs, the beliefs, attitudes and prejudices of many a Jones Countian, including myself.
Inventing Newt Knight
Some people in Jones County claim two Bibles: The King James and The Book of Ethel, more commonly known as The Echo of the Black Horn. In 1951, Ethel Knight, a distant in-law of Newt’s, released her bombshell of a book. In it she spilled the beans, and named names while she was at it. Ethel simultaneously became the most praised and the most cussed-out woman in Jones County.
Ethel Knight had grown furious at how outsiders were portraying Mississippi in general and Jones County in particular. She was especially upset over the national attention given to the Davis Knight trial over in Ellisville. Davis Knight was a descendant of Newt’s on the black side of the family, but had been caught passing for white. In 1948, he was brought to court and sentenced to five years for marrying a white woman. It landed in the Mississippi Supreme Court. According to Ethel the national press was having a field day at our expense. She said she was sick and tired of watching outsiders “…distort the facts into wicked propaganda.” She wrote Echo to set the record straight.
Of course she wasn’t the first Jones Countian driven to revise Newt’s image. In 1865, to dispel the notion that the anti-Confederates led by Newt Knight were community heroes, the county changed its name for a while to Davis, after Jefferson Davis, hoping to remove all doubt as to their patriotism to the recently vanquished Confederate States of America.
Years later, as the stories about Newt became meaner and nastier, his son Tom wrote a book trying to redeem his dad. He claimed that Newt Knight wasn’t such a bad man after all. He was more like a Robin Hood of Jones County.
James Street, a Laurel newspaperman, came along in 1942 and penned the best selling novel Tap Roots, which for the first time raised the specter of race-mixing among the Knights. Though he didn’t use real names, everybody knew who he was talking about. I know of at least one family of black Knights, who at the time were passing for white in Hattiesburg, having to pack up and move to Memphis after that book came out. A few white Knights changed their name and moved to Texas.
The movie of the same title was released in 1948. About the only good thing the New York Times critic had to say about the film was that the star, Susan Hayward, was “… generously endowed by nature and further enhanced by Technicolor.” Still, it cemented Street’s depiction of the hero of the legend as an honorable man fighting for a noble, anti-Confederate cause. That same year Mississippi took Davis Knight to court for miscegenation. On top of that, Willie McGee had been sentenced to die and while the whole world protested his upcoming electrocution at courthouse. Once again Jones County had occasion to be splashed across the slick pages of Newsweek, Time, Life and Look. The sanctity and racial purity of the old Confederacy in Jones County was in shambles.
That’s where Ethel comes in.
She decided to fight back. She rifled through trunks and attics, poured through courthouse papers, studied Civil War muster rolls, tromped through overgrown cemeteries, interrogated the old timers, and pieced together the “authentic” story of Newt Knight. Somehow she even got Tom, Newt’s ninety year-old son, to renounce his childhood hero, his own father, on the jacket of her book. Once again, Newt was depicted as a bushwhacking, cold-blooded, no good deserter. A traitor to both his country and his race. For a long while, that image stuck with a large part of the county.
But now it seems the pendulum is swinging back again. Victoria Bynum, a Texas college professor has recently written a highly respected book on Jones County that returns a little luster to Knight’s hero status. She even presents his fathering two races of Knights in a more positive light. Producer Gary Ross, whose movies include Seabiscuit and Big, has bought the rights and will be filming “The Free State of Jones” in the near future.
You may ask, how could there be anything left to tell about this old man, born over 170 years ago?
Recently, I was startled when I sat down with members from the black side of the Knight family. It was like I stepped through the looking glass. I was familiar with all the books written by white folks about Newt, but now I was suddenly witnessing a piece of the mystery that has been mostly ignored—those legends passed down through generations of black Knights. In these stories the names were the same, Newt and Rachel and Serena, but the heroes and the villains were reversed. “Where did these stories come from?” I asked.
Yvonne Bivins, one of the people present, told me that when she was a child and there was bad weather, they all gathered at their grandparent’s house, the kids huddling by the fireplace. While the storm was brewing, her grandfather would say, “Be quiet. The Lord is working.” When the storm subsided, the old ones began telling the stories to the children. It had the sound of the sacred.
I came to understand that these stories were indeed holy work. Each story had a moral, and the stories handed down to black kids taught very different lessons than the ones handed down to white kids. That’s when I understood. Folks fill in the blanks of Newt’s story to bear out their own truth. If Newt Knight had never been born, we would have to invent him, just to talk about who we are.
That’s why the story of Newt Knight just won’t die. It insists upon being born again and again. The need for the truth is a powerful thing. We humans just can’t abide an unsolved mystery. We turn our mysteries into myths, and myths change to suit the times, like Oedipus Rex or the Iliad. Within the myth of Newt Knight lie the unresolved paradoxes of our age, about race and family and country. The Myth of Newt Knight forever poses the question, “Who are we, really?”
And the truth of the answer, like us, keeps evolving.
Ethel Knight: Conscience of the Confederacy
The Hornes probably knew Ethel Knight best. Carolyn and Keith looked after Ethel the last ten years of her life, following the death of her husband and all of her children. Ethel even willed the Hornes the publishing rights to Echo of the Black Horn because she believed they would keep it going.
And they have. Echo of the Black Horn is presently in its ninth printing and still sells strong locally. Along with the family Bible, it is a cherished item in many a Jones County native’s home. A good portion of sales are from people replacing the one they loaned out and never got back. This book has a habit of disappearing.
Keith remembers the day he took Ethel to her doctor in Magee. There in the waiting room was a copy of Echo with a hole drilled in it. “They had run a chain though the hole and attached to the table so nobody would take it home. No telling how many they had went missing.” It’s true once you get into it, whether you love it or hate it, you just can’t put it down.
Carolyn and Keith went over to Ethel’s house every Sunday and Ethel would cook for them. And while she cooked, she told stories. Carolyn got smart and began bringing a recorder to tape Ethel as she reeled off one priceless bit of Mississippi history after another. Carolyn says she has hours and hours of Ethel talking while pots clanged and dishes rattled in the background. One day, Carolyn says, there will be another book.
“We might have to leave home if it ever gets published,” Keith laughs.
I asked what motivated Ethel to write Echo.
“Having married a Knight herself, she wanted to clear her husband’s name,” Keith explained. “Newt’s whole family was a total outcast. They wouldn’t allow them in churches. Some of that still exists. It’s a prejudice. People don’t even know why anymore; they just know they aren’t supposed to like them.”
But some people are proud of their associations to Newt. In Ethel’s book there is the story of a raid on Knight’s gang. Newt escapes, fleeing into the woods. A woman runs along side him, carrying her infant, but she begins tire. Newt snatches up the child and carries the baby in the crook of his arm. “Tomorrow,” Keith says, “we’re going to interview that baby’s grandson. He’s probably over 65 now.”
“Everybody knew Ethel,” Keith said, “and Ethel knew everybody. And she knew everything about everybody. If she had been born twenty years later, she would have been Governor.”
People would call her all the time with questions about their ancestry. “Ethel was one of those people who just loved to do for folks. To help you out,” Carolyn told me. “Folks were always dropping by to ask her questions about their roots. White and black. She would take time to help them all. She was very generous with her information.”
In an age when there were so many Knights passing for whites, people also came to Ethel with more surprising requests. Carolyn told of a woman whose daughter was engaged to a Knight. She called up Ethel and asked, “Has he got any black in him?” Ethel confirmed that no, the man was not of Rachel, Newt’s slave wife’s, line.
According to Keith, whenever a person in Jones County says they are a Knight, there is always that suspicion. He mentioned one group of Knights who got so tired of it they moved to Texas and changed their names to McKnight, (We’ll find out how blacks feel about this mixed ancestry in future columns!)
In her book, Ethel takes a strong stand against “race-mixing” and lauds the ideals of the Confederacy. She even dedicated her book “…to the memory of the Noble Confederates who lived and died for Jones County.” Not very politically correct nowadays. I was curious to know how Ethel reacted to this new breed of historians revising Jones County history once more, especially considering how her own account of things stood for so long. I could just hear Ethel railing against this new set of outsiders coming into Jones County to twist “facts into wicked propaganda.”
Keith told me of an encounter Ethel had with a stranger who dropped by her house one afternoon. Little did Ethel know that this white woman pumping her for information would turn around and write a popular book casting Ethel as a racist, calling her research into question, and suggesting that Echo was little more than a thinly disguised defense of white supremacy.
When that new book hit the shelves, Ethel was 93 and legally blind. “I had to read it to her,” Carolyn remembers. “You can only imagine how she felt. That woman took some mean swipes at Ethel.”
Indeed, Ethel felt personally betrayed and defamed, and sure enough her trademark temper was on display. Ninety-three or not, she wasn’t going to take it lying down. When the author came to USM to promote her new work, Ethel decided she would go face the woman.
She made sure to arrive early enough to get a seat right up front. And there she sat, stiffly in the third row of the packed auditorium, staring down the professor with a defiant glare. “She didn’t say a word,” Carolyn remembers. “She was too much of a lady for that.”
She didn’t need to say anything. Coming to stand with her was an incensed contingent from the Sons of Confederate Veterans, folks who honor Ethel because of her unrepentant stand for the Confederacy.
How did the professor react?
“It must have rattled her,” Keith laughed. “She seemed to lose her focus for quite a bit.”
Who wouldn’t, I wondered, with the full moral weight of the Confederate Army bearing down on you?
Dispatches From Jones County: The Battle of the Newts
I don’t know if you’ve heard the cannon-fire, but the “Battle of the Newts” is raging hot and heavy again. It happens every few years, whenever somebody comes out with a new book claiming to tell the real story of how Jones County did (or did not) secede from the Confederacy and how the entire county was taken over (or not ) by a Rebel deserter by the name of Newton Knight and how he did (or didn’t) take an ex-slave woman as his lover.
Newt’s been dead nearly a century, but it’s just like him to get people taking potshots at each other. I can hear him laughing, “I don’t care what y’all say about me, but you better not forget me!” Well, I’m sure he’s loving this latest brawl over who the real Newton Knight was.
This most recent book, The State of Jones, (Doubleday 2009) was written by Stauffer and Jenkins, two Yankees who say they know Newt better than his own family, his neighbors, and his fellow Mississippians. They are convinced they have discovered what every slow-witted Southern writer who came before has missed. They actually say as much.
Those they discredit include Newt’s own son, Thomas Jefferson Knight who wrote the original book about his father, The Life and Times of Captain Newton Knight and his Company in 1942. And then there’s Cousin Ethel Knight, who wrote Echo of the Black Horn in 1951. She comes in for some pretty harsh treatment at their hands. And according to these two Northern know-it-alls, the exhaustively researched books of Mississippian Rudy Leverett (Legend of the Free State of Jones, Univ. Pr. of MS 1984) and Texan Victoria Bynum (Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War, UNC Press, 2001) can’t be believed as far you as you can throw them. When asked how they got to know the South better than Southerners, they had the gall to answer that had spent nearly two whole weeks in Mississippi.
Lord, I’ve was born and raised here, wrote two novels about Mississippi, and 40 columns on Jones County and I still can’t explain us!
There’s a good story in how this pair got involved with Newt to begin with. It started when another Yankee, one with a lot of money and Hollywood pull by the name of Gary Ross, found himself in Mississippi. Somehow he stumbled across Newt’s story. You have to hand it to the ingenuity of Northerners. They come into Mississippi, look around a couple of days and think to themselves, “Darn if these folks ain’t pitiful. Sitting on all this gold and either too dumb or too lazy to haul it across the street to the bank.”
Ross decides our story needs to be made into a major motion picture. Of course, give credit where credit is due. Ross’s instincts are usually pretty good. He had the same idea about “Seabiscuit” and look what happened.
I guess it was about this time he came across Dr. Bynum’s book, which had been selling pretty well since it came out in 2001. People thought her book was probably the last word on Newt Knight. But those same people aren’t aware that Newt’s mischievous spirit never sleeps.
Ross liked that book so much he bought the rights, everybody thinking he was going to turn Bynum’s work into a movie. But Ross had other plans for that book. He wanted to bury it. You see, it didn’t have the kind of ending that Hollywood likes. Newt needed to be updated for the new millennium. Ross thought it would be a better if Newt was a religious, morally upright abolitionist who was more liberal than John Brown, Abe Lincoln, and Jessie Jackson all rolled up together. And of course, every movie hero needs a good woman by his side. Why not make Rachel, the ex-slave woman, Knight’s one and only true love? (You still thinkin’ 1860’s Mississippi?) Ain’t Hollywood wonderful? I can already hear the swell of the violins in the background.
The next thing Ross did was find himself some local talent and said, “Here, take this woman Bynum’s research that I bought, and see if you can’t duplicate it. I want to publish my own book with my own ending and I don’t want to be beholdin’ to nobody.”
They did what he asked, and threw in a couple of conveniently never-before discovered “facts” as a bonus. Ross then took that information, along with his already written movie script and fat checkbook, and went on a shopping trip to Harvard. There he bought his own very own historian to “research” his book.
Then he found him a woman sports writer to make it read like a potboiler romance.
Their book came out in June and has already been shot full of holes in the renewed “Battle of the Newts.” Historians, incensed that history can be bought, rewritten and sold so blatantly, are lining up to write withering reviews in papers like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Dr. Bynum is coming out looking pretty good. Her research is holding up better than the Carpetbaggers; and her reputation as a historian, as well as her book sales, have soared.
There is one more piece of bad news for Ross and his army of scavengers. Universal Studios has put an indefinite hold on the movie because of the economy.
But the people I feel bad for are Tom and Ethel Knight, and their heirs, black and white. Every book, dissertation, movie script, and newspaper article in the last sixty years on Newt Knight quotes freely from Tom and Ethel’s books. To make their cases, authors, historians and movie producers and directors lift Tom and Ethel’s words right off the page. And in the next moment, talk about how racist or biased or ignorant they were. It’s like going to your neighbor’s well, drinking your fill and then cussing the water. And then everybody feels free to come back and help themselves to another dipper full.
But does anyone say thanks? No. In fact, nobody pays a dime for picking through these treasures. And I don’t use the word “treasures” lightly. The works they left behind are both remarkable labors love and a part of our Mississippi heritage. Whether they are factually accurate or not, or written through the distorted lens of racism, white supremacy or family myth, they were written by us, for us.
These two simple people, without nary a Ph.D. or Academy Award to their names, tried their best to make sure that the story of a people would live on after they were long gone. That deserves respect, not scorn.
The truth is if it weren’t for Tom and Ethel, the legend of Newt Knight would have stayed in the grave with him. Maybe that’s why Newt’s spirit is letting Gary Ross, a movie producer, have the last word. None of the three would admit it, but I think Ethel and Tom and Ross are a lot alike. They might have different politics, but they are all more storytellers than historians. They never let a few facts get in the way of a rousing tale, and that’s why Newt won’t die. He can be anybody you want him to be. It’s the storytellers who keep him alive and he knows it.
For columns on Newt’s family and ancestry, black and white, see: