In Honor of the Coast Guard’s 100th Anniversary – The Little Known Story of North Carolina’s African American Rescue Crew

by Owen James Burke

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The Pea Island Surfmen were an outpost of all-African-American lifesavers on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, pioneers of what was to become the United States Coast Guard, which was commissioned 100 years ago today.

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After the Civil War, maritime traffic increased along the eastern seaboard of the United States as industrialization proliferated, and as a result, so did the number of casualties at sea. In an effort to curb the loss of life, the United States Lifesaving Service was formed in 1871. Outposts sprang up all along the eastern seaboard, one such on Pea Island (est. c. late 1870s) on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, a body of water so notorious for its tortured waters that it was — and still is — dubbed “The Graveyard of the Atlantic.”

Nepotism was rampant within the program when it began, and the hegemonic powers that were placed in charge of establishing the lifesaving service assigned the position of watch-keepers to friends, other socially elite white males. Many of these men — although they were compensated well enough — did not hold much regard for their occupation or were not conditioned for lifesaving in the first place, and story has it that some were more concerned with fraternizing or drinking, frequently leaving stations unmanned or under the command of their unpaid African-American subordinates.

This careless negligence led to a series of botched rescues along the North Carolina coast over a short period of two months which accounted for the tragic loss of 188 sailors and over $500,000 dollars (the equivalent of over $12.5 million today) in merchandise. One incident in particular — the wreck of the U.S.S. Huron in 1887 — left 98 sailors dead, even though it occurred only 200 yards from shore. In the aftermath of these catastrophes, Uncle Sam wasn’t happy.

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“Death on Economy” by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly, 1877

After yet another failed rescue in 1879, The Pea Island Station came under the investigation of the Revenue Cutter Service, which deemed the stations services insufficient and fired the head watch-keeper (also called “keeper”). Per the unprecedented recommendation of LSS inspector, 1st LT Charles F. Shoemaker, keeper of the nearby Bodie Lifesaving Station, Richard Etheridge, a former slave and Civil War Buffalo Soldier, was appointed and effectively became the first African American keeper of a lifesaving station. Indignation led all of the remaining white rescue men at Pea Island to resign from their posts, and by default the station became the first (and perhaps only) all-African-American lifesaving station.

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Pea Island Station Keeper Etheridge (left) and the Pea Island Surfmen

Knowing all too well that he and the other surfmen were under watchful, even disdainful eyes, Mr. Etheridge operated the Pea Island Station with rigorous zeal, for upon even the slightest error — despite the grave missteps of his predecessor — he and his men could have been terminated. Keeping in mind the time, few people held much desire to see the all-African-American establishment succeed, and probably even fewer of the neighboring (and underperforming) lifesaving stations along the coast. Just five months after Etheridge took command, arsonists burned the Pea Island Station to the ground. Nevertheless, he and the surfmen were unfazed, and rebuilt the station.

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“Pea Island Lifesaving Crew Makes a Rescue” by Roy la Grone

Years later, on the night of October 11, 1896 in what was probably a hurricane, a ship by the name of E.S. Newman was driven aground with a full crew, along with the captain’s wife and three-year-old daughter. Conditions would not allow for the surfboat to be launched, so several of the Pea Island Surfmen swam into the swells to reach the boat. Swimming back and forth — 9 times in all — they managed to spare every soul aboard the ship. Etheridge proudly continued to serve at The Pea Island Station until he succumbed to illness at the age of 58 while on duty. The Pea Island Station maintained an all-African-American crew until it was finally decommissioned in 1947.

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Coast Guardsmen wheel out a lifeboat at the Pea Island Station 1942

Maritime rescue has come a long way in the last hundred years, and it’s safe to say that the United States Coast Guard would not be what it is today without members of the United States Lifesaving Service like Mr. Richard Etheridge. To Mr. Richard Etheridge, along with the Pea Island Rescue Men, the rest of the Lifesaving Service and the Coast Guard, mariners and their loved ones continue to owe great thanks. Here’s to those men and women who have committed, dedicated and in many cases lost their lives to rescue at sea.

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Order Rescue Men – The Story of the Pea Island Life Savers to watch the full documentary, and for a detailed written account of the Pea Island Surfmen, read Fire on the Beach: Recovering the Lost Story of Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers. — OJB

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