Ellie Brigida: Okay, I will start. You know what, I’m gonna go a little wild and say that this is actually fiction. And that if pirates caught someone, they could do whatever the heck they wanted to them, unless the captain was like, “Hey, don’t.” But I think this is fiction. And they probably went like pretty crazy on all of their captives and did not have a code. That’s what I’m gonna say. What about you, Leesa? Welcome to Sweetbitter, where we explore the untold history of women and queer pirates. We’re your hosts, Ellie Brigida…
Leesa Charlotte: …and Leesa Charlotte.
EB: This episode is our second episode discussing the Black Atlantic.
LC: But before we get into that, let’s welcome our resident pirate expert, Alyse, for a game of Fact or Fiction.
EB: Hi, Alyse
Alyse Knorr: Hello, friends.
EB: What do you got for us today, Alyse? I’m excited. Alright, let’s hear it.
AK: In the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, you might remember that when Elizabeth Swann–Keira Knightley–is taken hostage by some of the pirates, just as they’re about to kill her, she says, “Parlay.” And that means that she has to be taken to sort of like work at a deal or a negotiation. It’s like pirate code. So anybody can negotiate with the captain of their ship, basically, without being harmed until the parlay is complete. Is that real or not?
EB: “Parlay? I request parlay.” No, I don’t know. I just love that part of the movie. Yeah, I just love Keira Knightley. Especially in Pirates of the Caribbean, one of her best films, and Colette. But–
LC: –Do you know it, Ellie?
EB: I’m just like–are you trying to let me win here? I feel like maybe you are. I don’t know.
LC: Okay, I’m gonna go fact. I know you were definitely going to choose fact, and now I’m just wondering if you’re just letting me win.
EB: I don’t know.
LC: Or otherwise, that that is even funnier.
EB: I think I’m letting you win. And then I’m wrong.
LC: It’s even funnier if you–
EB: –or that I’m right.
LC: –are actually right. I think that is fact. I feel like everything we’ve learned about pirates is that they’re very democratic, and that they live by a code. And I think that it is correct. But now I’m suspicious because Ellie said fiction, and Ellie is on a streak. So Alyse, let us know.
AK: Leesa, you finally won one. It’s fact.
EB: She did it.
LC: All because Ellie let me.
EB: No, I really thought it was fiction.
LC: Oh, come on.
EB: I just wanted to see if I could trick my brain, but it didn’t really work very well. You did great. You did great.
LC: Thanks, thanks. I love that.
EB: Wait. So tell us about it, tell us about it. Why is it fact?
AK: So it’s not–the way it is in the film is fiction. So you can have a couple points Ellie, like, this wasn’t just some like, specific pirate thing that pirates did, and it was part of a pirate code and they invented it. But the word parlay actually does have some history, because it comes from the French, “to speak,” parlay. And it just basically means like a discussion or conference between enemies over terms of a truce. It would have like come into use in the High Middle Ages, and would be held between like kings and their chief retainers. And so parlay–it’s even in Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare’s play. He, you know, has a parlay between Brutus and Anthony. And so yeah, like it was a thing. And so some pirate ships might have had it because they would have heard about it and known about it, and they were really democratic spaces. So it’s entirely possible that this could have been part of pirate culture. It just wasn’t like, only pirates or pirates invented it or something like that.
EB: That makes a lot of sense to me. I wonder too, like–okay, on the fiction part, I’m gonna still double down. I wonder if it is like, okay, you only get parlay if the pirates want parlay, like you can’t ask for parlay. That’s I think where I’m going with the fiction. Do you know what I mean?
AK: I think that was probably–yeah.
EB: Of like–Elizabeth Swann doesn’t have like the power to parlay, like, you know–who did she get captured by? What’s his name? It’s Barbosa.
AK: Barbosa. Yeah.
EB: So I feel like Barbosa would’ve had to say like, “Hey, I want to parlay with Elizabeth Swann.” Like she doesn’t have the bargaining chips, if you just say parlay.
AK: So I mean, on that count, like, yeah, pirates really ranged in their methodologies. And some of them would have already, like, thrown her overboard or done even more horrible things to her. But also, they could use high class women as captives. And if they were doing that, they treated them really, really, really well. Because if the captive was harmed when she made it back, the hostage, you know, the people paying the hostage wouldn’t be happy.
LC: Because women are property.
AK: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Right. There were some pirates who treated their captives, like, really honorably, or some who would just decide based on–so for instance, if they captured a ship, right, I think I said this in a past episode, but if they captured a ship, they would decide what to do to that captain based on how he had treated his men. So they would ask the sailors, “Was your captain nice to you? Or was he a shit?” And if they said nice, they would treat him really nice. And if they said he was a shit, they would literally torture him and like, murder him. So they have really complicated codes. But I think I’m with Ellie that it did kind of depend on their mood and their ship.
LC: Of course she’s right.
EB: Sorry, Leesa.
AK: You’re still right though, Leesa. It’s not completely made up. It’s not it’s not completely made up. It is a thing.
LC: I’ve had like a really hard start to the year, and you guys just tried to throw me a bone.
EB: Here, please take this–
LC: Take this small win.
EB: Take this Fact or Fiction win. I wonder how Ching Shih dealt with parlay. Because I feel like that was one of the things were like Ching Shih was very much like more–was kinder towards women captives.
AK: She was so political and such like a smooth operator. I could see her being like, “Yeah, I want to hear what you have to say.”
EB: Yeah, especially if like that person’s family has money. That’s probably like, how Ching Shih got in with all the governments, so higher negotiations, very interesting.
AK: The Barbary corsair pirates in like Morocco, their whole business was hostages–specifically, like, you know, high class women. And so this was like, their whole racket was just capturing people, treating them really, really, really nice to the point where I think some of them would actually marry the corsairs and like, are the kings are just like, stay there. But then they’d just give them back and be like, “Yeah, good luck to you with your shitty life in Europe. Have fun.” Oh my god. They’re like, “Don’t let us go, please. We want to stay here, with you.” That happens sometimes.
EB: I mean, we call that Stockholm Syndrome, right?
AK: That’s a good point. That’s a good point.
EB: But yes, sounds beautiful. Oh, my gosh. Thank you so much, Alyse.
EB: We will be back after a quick break.
LC: We’re back. Today we wanted to share an amazing story that we thought merited its own episode about an all Black crew of the National Life Saving Service, which was a precursor to the Coast Guard in the early days of the Jim Crow era.
EB: Here’s author Carole Weatherford, who wrote a young adult book about the crew called Sink or Swim: African American Lifesavers of the Outer Banks.
Carole Weatherford: For those who don’t know what the US Lifesaving Service is, it was the precursor to the Coast Guard. And back in the days of the US Lifesaving Service, there was no such thing as radar, and you know, all this computer technology and sonar and all that stuff. So there were life saving stations on both coasts, and also in the Great Lakes, and lifesavers were charged with rescuing shipwreck survivors and helping to reclaim, you know, some of the cargo as well, from shipwrecks. Now, the particular story that I tell of Sink or Swim: African American Lifesavers of the Outer Banks is set on the North Carolina coast, along the Outer Banks, which is a region that was known as the graveyard of the Atlantic, because the shifting shoals there led to so many shipwrecks. At the time, this is during the Reconstruction Era, government jobs were among the best jobs that anyone could have. And there was no tourism industry on the coast. And not much of a maritime industry. You know, they were still agricultural. There was some–you know, there were watermen. Most of the lifesavers were white, you had to be able to read and write to be a lifesaver, because you had to pass the government exam. And you also had to be able to swim. And many, many African Americans couldn’t swim, captive African Americans could swim when they first came over to be brought to the quote unquote, New World. But slave masters recognized that that could be a means of escape. And so they told stories about the horrors of the sea. They forbade the teaching of African Americans to swim. And after a while it was you know–we couldn’t swim. And so that was during the slavery era. And then, of course, during the Jim Crow era, we were not admitted to swimming pools. They were segregated. So we’re in this middle period of reconstruction, and Richard Etheridge and his crew members could swim. Richard Etheridge joined the US Lifesaving Service after having served in the US Colored Troops during the Civil War, and was appointed to a crew. It was known as the Salt and Pepper crew, meaning that blacks and whites served on the same crew. And then Richard Etheridge was appointed keeper, and you would not have thought that that would be you know–it would have been a problem, except that white men did not want to take orders from a Black man and so the entire crew at Pea Island Lifesaving Station on the Outer Banks quit. And Richard Etheridge was then assigned–enlisted a crew of Black men. And some of those were men who were watermen or men who had served at other lifesaving stations. So the Pea Island lifesaving crew was the only all Black crew in the entire US Lifesaving Service. And they monitored a stretch of beach that was, I think, maybe three and a half miles, meaning they had to go–it might have even been seven miles–and they had to go like to the midpoint. There would have been another life saving station nearby. And these two crews would not necessarily meet face to face, but they would come and go to a little place where they had to put a token to indicate that they had monitored this stretch of the shoreline. And I think it was 1896, there was a hurricane. Those were the days before hurricanes had names, and it was October of 1896. And this hurricane hit the North Carolina coast, and there was a shipwreck. The ship was literally, you know, ships were wooden back then, and the ship was literally being battered by the storm and was falling apart at sea. The waves were too, too turbulent for the lifesaving crew to roll out their lifesaving lifeboat out to the shipwreck. And so they had to perform what was known as a beach rescue which involves ropes and pulleys. There was a line that a rope that would have been fired from a cannon out to the shipwreck with instructions on how this boat was to be attached to the mast or any other steady part of the boat so that the survivors could aid in their own rescue. The lifesavers waited one by one, took turns wading out to the shipwreck, and rescued nine survivors, one by one, that evening. However, their heroism was never recognized during their lifetime. They never received the gold lifesaving medals because of the color of their skin. And not until the 1980s, 1990s and the combined efforts of an eighth grade girl named Katie Burkhart, and a Coast Guard–later, he eventually became a commander and became chief steward at the White House, named Steven Rashaan. To gain recognition for these men, was the medal finally awarded, and the medals were finally awarded in 1996.
EB: We wanted to dive–get it–into the story a little deeper. So we interviewed David Wright Faladé and David Zoby, the co-authors of a wonderful history book about Richard Etheridge and his crew called Fire on the Beach.
David Zoby: The original idea was that it’d be all volunteer and there would be these stations of refuge built along the beaches and built along the Great Lakes. So when mariners got into trouble, or came ashore, they’d have clothing and a way to start a fire, and it just wasn’t working. You know, we talked about in the book and when we see audiences, we say, when these big shipwrecks would happen, you’d have you know, 180, 250 people drowned right there, on the beach, it wasn’t as simple as just jumping off and swimming for it because it was wintertime, we’re talking about huge rip currents, huge waves, and there was all this debris in the surf. So if you jumped in there, there’s floating boards and nails. And it just wasn’t a thing where you could just swim ashore. So they were having these disastrous wrecks on the Great Lakes and the coasts. Eventually, Congress slowly, begrudgingly started appropriating money for a more formal system. And it slowly became the US Lifesaving Service. And they had a keeper and he would recruit what they called serve men that have six servants at each station. But originally, the stations were, you know, good 20, 30 miles apart, and they were being asked to patrol on foot too much space, and it still wasn’t working.
David Wright Faladé: The Lifesaving Service starts in the 1870s after the Civil War, this is still during the age of sail. So the overwhelming, you know, majority of goods and people that are moving, are moving by water, and boats at this point are overwhelmingly wooden vessels powered by sail. They are particularly vulnerable in bad weather. And so the Lifesaving Service as it originally is conceived and then executed, just like Zoby said, there are a certain number of stations, but it was a little bit of a half-hearted effort. So the stations are too far apart. They’re asked to be responsible for too many stretches of land. You know, when a ship came ashore, it’s like when a plane goes down now, it’s like dramatic and big and there’s lots of loss of life. But if the lifesavers can’t help them, then the blame has been placed upon them. The initial stations are mostly up and down the eastern seaboard, and then along the Great Lakes, but along the Outer Banks, it’s a particularly dangerous area. It was also referred to as the graveyard of the Atlantic. Cold currents from the north, the Labrador currents, meet with warm currents coming up from the Gulf of Mexico. So if you’re in a sailing vessel, it’s perfect, you know, you get into those currents and you travel really fastly. And you arrive basically abreast of the Outer Banks, Cape Hatteras or whatever, push off to sea or whatever. Also, because of those same systems, the sea off that coast is particular–there’s a lot of shoals and it’s particularly dangerous. And this is in good weather a little bit hard to navigate during this age before radar, you know, before all these things that we sort of take for granted. There’s a lot of shipwrecks that happen, and the Lifesaving Service is responsible for them. And they just are ill-equipped to do it in its initial incarnation. The other problem, and this was, to me, it was part of what was really interesting–it’s also when it’s first formed, it’s during the Reconstruction, which is great, you know, the Reconstruction is this opportunity for a more democratic form of government, Black folks are involved. But the Reconstruction is coming to an end. And the initial stations in the Outer Banks are largely integrated. But it’s a civil service organization at that point. It’s not the Coast Guard, as we know today, and there is no civil service law. So keepers are political appointees. And oftentimes, the political appointees, there’s just, like there is at any moment, there’s just a lot of political corruption. There were a series of disasters, and there was an official who came from the north, and he inspected all the crews. And the keeper of one crew is the school teacher, the keeper of another crew is a blacksmith, and neither have any experience with the sea. There’s things like that. And some of these keepers are also appointing their brothers-in-law or family members who are not qualified. The Lifesaving Service had to figure out a system by which they would get the best lifesavers in there. And they could also sort of, again, before civil service laws, have some control over it.
LC: How cute are David and David?
EB: The cutest.
LC: If your name’s David.
EB: Let’s be friends. Yeah, let’s be friends and write about things. They are so cute, and they have so much to say. So they have more to say even about Richard Etheridge. This is where Richard Etheridge comes in.
DWF: One of the things that the inspector noted was that in these first stations in the Outer Banks, which is North Carolina,, so former Confederate state, a number of the stations had what were called checkerboard crews. So they would have a few Black surfmen in them. The black surfmen were almost always at the bottom of the roster, like they were called surfmen. And the surfmen were ranked by order of rank, you know, sort of the number one surfman was the equivalent of like the second in command. The Black surfmen tended to be numbers five and six in a six man duty roster. The inspector from the North was like, some of the better surfmen are in fact these Black surfmen. At the same time, to add another piece to it, Reconstruction is coming to an end. It’s just clear, you know, this compromise is made with government, the sort of Northern presence in the South is going to be less impactful, Black surfmen are starting to be hired less and less. The “aha” moment that the northern inspector had was, if we take one of these stations, take one of these black surfmen who’s really outstanding, and in this case, it was a man named Richard Etheridge, who was noted to be amongst the best surfmen in the area–if we make him a keeper, we won’t have to do anything. The white surfmen will leave. He shows up, the white surfmen leave. And then what they have Richard Etheridge do is hire black surfmen, they take the other black surfmen from crews, put them there, and then allow him to fill out the roster with other black surfmen. So essentially, they use segregation. You know, we think of Jim Crow now we think rightly about, you know, whites only, blacks only water fountains and this thing that is really repressive. That’s what Jim Crow was. But in 1880, when they appoint Richard Etheridge, they use that as a way to keep black lifesavers in the service, as a way to keep these good black surfmen in a position where they would be able to have a job. And that’s how Pea Island was formed. The other piece about who the surfmen were–everybody in the Outer Banks is familiar with the sea and everybody in the Outer Banks is resourceful more or less. Maybe that school teacher is not qualified to be a keeper, but especially those those folks who had grown up as watermen like Richard Etheridge did, and it wasn’t just the slaves, again, as a relatively poor region. Like his master, who was potentially his father, was one of the more wealthy Outer Bankers. He owned eight, nine slaves. It wasn’t like plantation slavery, like we think about when we think about the South, eight or nine slaves. He worked alongside his slaves. Adam and Patrick were super capable watermen, just like Richard was. The problem was discipline. And that’s one thing that Richard Etheridge had because of his military background. There’s this pressure then, you know your station has been burned down. This is the only place where you can serve, if you’re Richard Etheridge or one of his surfmen. On the one hand, you’re like, “I can’t mess up. If I mess up, all Black people are out of the service.” But then also, if you want a promotion, the only chance you get of getting a promotion, is if the guy ahead of you retires and he’s not gonna why would he? And you’re not wishing ill on these people. These same fairly small number of Black surfmen were in Pea Island forever and it just became a source of–Richard Etheridge died at the station of illness, the guy who took over for him afterwards, Benjamin Bowser, had been his second in command for a long time, he died in the station of illness. Like this was the one place where you’re a Black surfmen. If you’re a white surfman, you could be, you know, number three at station X, and they get a promotion at station B down the coast. If you’re a Black surfmen, that was not true.
LC: I really am against this idea of being able to have a job until you die.
EB: Oh, yeah. I mean, understandable. Yeah. You have no incentive to be good at your job. That’s what it is.
LC: Yes, exactly. And also, like, not only that, but like, I mean, my family has a history of dementia, like, lots of people get dementia. I just, I’m really–for the Supreme Court, for any position, for tenured positions at universities, I just–this needs to die. This idea needs to die, of people having a job until they die.
EB: Understandable. Yeah. Anyway, Richard Etheridge is amazing.
LC: Amazing. Yes.
EB: So why isn’t he more well known?
DWF: Just with doing a little bit of research, it’s clear that he is this distinguished figure. He had been born a slave and he knew that, and the way that they talked about it–they were talking about him as being half Native American, you know, and we were talking to Win Doe again, and Win is like, you know, there is by and large, no Native American presence in the Outer Banks, by that time, the Native Americans had been sort of pushed off the land, wiped out, whatever. And that–I remember growing up, that was oftentimes, you know, as a Black person, my father was in Kansas City. I just remember that was oftentimes a shorthand, as a way to sort of disguise the fact that you’re half Black, half white, they would say, oh, I have Native American blood. And so we immediately–I started thinking in that way, especially after what Win had said, and when we started doing research, we located Richard Etheridge in the census. Not by name because as a slave, you know, they’re sort of shadowy figures. This is part of what’s hard about doing the research. There’s a separate slave schedule, but we knew his birthdate, and we knew his owner. And we found that his pension records from after he had died, there were–his former owners had testified, you know, so his wife had asked them to, so she could get his pension benefits, and the language they were using to describe him, his former owners, his former master’s daughter, his former master’s son, the language they used was like, yeah, he was like one of the family, and they use this language that felt very familiar. But he was also, of the eight slaves that were owned by his master, he was the only one that was taught to read and write. And we looked really hard to try to locate who might have been his father. And we couldn’t. So we speculate, and we cannot prove it. But he seems to have maybe been his master’s son, when he gets back from the Civil War. So he does, he fights in the Civil War, we find him again, complete happenstance. If we were better historians, we might have come about this more legitimately. But we were just sort of doing the math and going, oh, yeah, he was about Civil War broke out. There were some Black units and this and that. I wonder if he fought in the Civil War. And we were in the library, there’s a book called The Black Military Experience by Ira Berlin, where he documents sort of the Black military experience and their contribution. As we’re flipping through that book, we’re looking in the index. And sure enough, we find him. Richard Etheridge, during the Civil War, had written a letter in protest of treatment back home, so we can situate him, we found his unit, his regiment, and his regiment was super active, he turned out to be the second highest ranking noncommissioned officer in the entire regiment.
DZ: You know, it’s amazing that his story isn’t a household name and people don’t know more about him. It’s starting to happen. There’s a bridge that connects Mannino to the mainland of North Carolina that’s named after him. There’s a billion dollar Coast Guard Cutter. We’ve both been on it, but it’s called the US Coast Guard Cutter Richard Etheridge. So he’s starting to get known but it’s amazing when you think about his life, that it’s so fantastic, where he started and where he went and how he served. He was born on those Outer Banks, and he learned the sea and fishing and wrecking, and you know, they used to–when wrecks would come to shore, people would salvage the cargo and we imagine he did all that. And we imagined that he was an inlet pilot and did all those things. And he went and served in the Civil War. And we can follow him through the Civil War, the various places. He could read and write. He had a talent that a lot of people didn’t. He went out and served in the West in the units that became the–later were called the Buffalo Soldiers. So he was decommissioned, I believe, in Texas, came back, started as a cook and a lower rank surfman in the different stations. One of the stations he worked at was Bodhi Island. There’s a lighthouse there now if you go to the Outer Banks, you’ll see that. But it’s just amazing, the life that he lived, as we wrap the book up near the end, he actually dies in the Pea Island Lifesaving Station. He actually died at the station. The disease, we’re not sure what it is. But he did not leave the station and he died right there, right there on the premises. And today his grave, it’s on Roanoke Island. It’s where the North Carolina Aquarium is, he’s buried right up front with his wife and his daughter. You know, when I was younger and didn’t know much I thought, you know, this was a tribute to him and they put the North Carolina Aquarium here because he’s this coastal hero and this person they want to pay homage to. But I found out that it was just happenstance. He owned that land there. As everybody died his family, there were no heirs, that I believe that land went back to the state and they at one point had a Coast Guard stationed out there with a landing strip for aircraft. When Dave Wright and I first were going down to North Carolina, his grave was there and it said a little bit about him and there’s a tiny little plaque. I haven’t been back in a while, but I was back seven years or something like that ago, and it’s a much bigger presence. Now they tell the story of him. James Melvin’s a local artists that did some paintings of not only Etheridge, but some of the keepers, some of the African American keepers after Etheridge. So I think the local people are starting to grab this history and with our book it was that, you know, people in the nation will know this story and more people can celebrate it.
EB: So why is there a book called Fire on the Beach? That’s a really wild story.
DZ: They immediately became the only all Black crew of the day that they appointed Etheridge, they shifted other members from other checkerboard crews, and someone had to come a long way. It wasn’t like an easy move. Some of them were, you know, 80 miles from another area to come serve this little dot. And at this time, you had to travel by boat. So you were isolated from your family, you’re out there, the checkerboard crews disappeared almost immediately. And I guess he used a lot of his experience, surfmen that he knew, he used people that he knew from Manteo, from Roanoke Island, former Civil War soldiers. But what’s really interesting about our story, and why we call it Fire on the Beach, is the station was burned down after the first season. And these were some of the most shocking documents. First of all, I gotta say, I was never trained as a historian. And all this was news to me. We were learning to write, you know, in writing, I didn’t know it was an everyday thing. But Dave Wright quickly taught me that, to my chagrin, and we had a basketball that we carried around, and we’d play basketball at noon, pretty vigorously for an hour or so. And then he’d want to go back to the archives. And I didn’t have that kind of work ethic at that time. I thought a writer’s life was a lot more chill than that. But we would drive and drive and drive. But just to see those documents. First of all the documents that got Richard Etheridge appointed in the first place, these white inspectors, they knew that this was going to cause quite a stir. And you can see them, you know, admitting that in the documents and planning that this will eventually become an all Black station, which it did. They did not see the arson coming. But the arson happened pretty, pretty quickly. I don’t know if that tells you who all the people were. Some of them stayed with Etheridge for a long time. Some of them came and went, you know, there had to be a lot of pressure working at the only all Black station because like I said a lot of have to had to come a lot further. There was only one promotion you could get, and that’s if somebody got hurt above you or if the keeper left, and Etheridge stayed in his spot until he died at the station. I mean, these were nice government positions to have and the only place that they could serve is Pea Island, so, you know, a few quit. There were preachers that were watermen. There were boat builders, there were all these fishermen, those types of people. But I think that we found it in the logs, I think that there was a certain amount of pressure to work at the Pea Island station.
EB: Wow. Yeah, could you imagine just being the Davids, being cute as hell, playing some basketball, doing some research, then you find out that this whole huge thing, like this whole station was burned to the ground. And of course, we can all speculate on why it was burned down. This is a very tumultuous time in civil rights history. But yeah, it’s crazy.
LC: It’s almost like when we started doing our Sappho season, and then that big, like, whole thing happened with the archaeology and whatever. Yeah, like we were like, okay, let’s finally do this Sappho podcast. A month later, it was like, oh my god, there’s this whole scandal about Sappho fragments. So wild.
EB: Lifesavers gone wild.
DWF: With the arson, there were a few points that were super interesting, that we found super interesting. So Etheridge is appointed keeper of Pea Island in November 1879, and he’s acknowledged up and down the coast, but also by these northern inspectors as this outstanding servant. He’s appointed keeper, the white surfmen leave, and he fills in his crew then with these blacks waterman and fishermen, some were Civil War veterans and whatnot. There’s an all Black crew. There was a lifesaving season. They determined and part of it was financial, they you know, had so much budget and they thought we just keep the stations manned for this eight months season. And the stations closed on May 1st. I think it’s May 8th was the date, the keeper would come back periodically to just make sure everything was right in the station, but they’re largely unmanned, and the Outer Banks, if you’ve ever been to the Outer Banks at day, like any given week, there’ll be 200,000 people out there. At that point, the population of the entire Outer Banks was a few thousand people, so it’s really desolate and sparse. On May 8th, the station catches fire and burned to the ground. The Northern inspectors who had appointed Etheridge, one of them is still out there. I think maybe even both of them are still out there. So they do this rigorous investigation, in part because the future of the entire Lifesaving Service is on the line. Part of the reason they put Etheridge there was these were reform measures they did to try to convince Congress that lifesaving services were happening because of these dramatic shipwrecks that had happened and the confidence that had preceded them. They do this inspection, this investigation up and down the coast. And they figure out that the arsonists were very likely a man named Adam Etheridge, his brother Patrick Etheridge, and a third person that they had hired named William Clark. Adam Etheridge and Patrick Etheridge are brothers, they serve at a neighboring station. Adam Etheridge is the number one surfman, so the second in command. Patrick is a lower rank surfman who comes in as a substitute from time to time. But that’s also the station that Richard Etheridge had served as the lowest ranking surfman before. Adam Etheridge and Patrick Etheridge are nephews of the man who owned Richard Etheridge. So if Richard is his master’s son, these are his cousins. And they are his former masters. The master of one is the master of all slaves, you know, especially in a small community like that. John D. Etheridge may have had the title to Richard Etheridge, but every slave is sort of subservient to every white person. So that piece of it is there, too. So they’re there, these are coveted positions, because the Outer Banks are super poor, for everybody, white and black. They’re fairly isolated from the rest of the world, much less the rest of North Carolina, they’re fairly poor. It’s a barter economy, the national government brings in these jobs, and some of them have been taken over by blacks at the end of Reconstruction. And the one neighboring is taken over by a person who had been lower in rank to you in station and who was also your former slave. And so we situate that as the motor for the arson, and part of what seems to substantiate it and again, all this is speculation to a certain extent, because we can’t prove that Richard Etheridge was his master’s son. So they were–the northern inspectors were very convinced it was Adam and Patrick, but the person who burnt it, they found footprints in the sand and whatnot. That person had waited till that time, till May 8th when the station was empty, and had been empty for a week. But he also removed the gunpowder from the station, they had gunpowder to use their lifesaving service equipment, because he didn’t want to kill people. He wanted to damage the station. He wanted to make a statement. Maybe the black people out. He didn’t want to kill this guy he’d grown up with, you know what I mean? So it’s this interesting, dramatic story.
EB: All right, so we’re gonna burn your whole thing down but we don’t want to kill you. Don’t worry. Really, really good, guys.
LC: We’re nice arsonists.
EB: Yeah, exactly.
LC: We’re cool arsonists, we don’t like–
EB: We remove all the gunpowder from your station before we burn it to the ground, you know? We just wanted to freak you out a little bit, Richie. Like, no. It’s also so crazy. Like, of course, it’s people who are related to him and related to his master. I mean, it makes sense because they were jealous of Richard getting all this special treatment. You know, moving up. It is so interesting. Humans are just fascinating. Like, we’re pissed at you, but we’re not that pissed. Right? It’s like–
LC: Arson, not murder. Yeah, that’s our line.
EB: We draw the line. Yes, and Patrick Etheridge, who was one of the ones who started this arson, there’s more about him. And the Davids will tell us.
LC: The Davids, as they are now known.
DZ: After the arson pointed clearly to him, he was able to transfer way down the coast, down south of Hatteras. He once said there was this massive hurricane and they had to go out and rescue a crew. And he said, you know, the regulations say we have to go out, it says nothing about us coming back. And that was like this bravado thing, where, you know, you had to go out to try to save these people and he did it, he saved a lot of people, he won a gold medal. And so you see his picture down–
DWF: That became the model, the thing that he said.
DZ: You have to go out and say nothing about coming back. When you go to the restaurants down there, you’ll see the portrait of Patrick Etheridge. And you’ll see Etheridge Street and you’ll see all this stuff. And when I was naive, I thought it was–maybe they were talking about Richard Etheridge. But they were talking about Patrick Etheridge. So when we come along with our research, we are being encouraged, we’re given a space at the Outer Banks History Center where we get support from the state of North Carolina. But there were some people that weren’t really thrilled for us to come out and show that Patrick Etheridge was tied to that arson, because he’s a Coast Guard hero. He’s a North Carolina hero. And they still be naming stuff after him. And they might be, but they need to look at him as a complex character. And that’s been nice, I think, don’t you think? Kind of a complex?
DWF: Yeah. I mean, another interesting piece of that, but Patrick Etheridge, he figures prominently in the novel I wrote because I felt like his complexity is compelling to me. I mean, he’s exactly what Sophie described, because of the political pressures, the Lifesaving Service chooses to not prosecute him. The investigation points clearly to him. They feel like if they prosecute him in this really fragile service at this really fragile moment in 1880 when they hear they need competent surfmen, you know, brave coastal lifesavers–so they choose not to prosecute him. They transferred way down the coast. He’s more ranked than them, but he climbs the ranks. He ends up being the second in command, he performs this rescue that Zoby described. That’s truly the role. He gets deservedly the gold lifesaving medal, he says the thing that Zoby said, it becomes the Coast Guard motto, but he remains a complicated character. Around that same time, I found these documents where he was twice arrested for assault and battery and then arrested for illegally dredging oysters. And in one of the instances–so you know, the recourse would be for the Lifesaving Service to drum him out into the service. The other keepers up and down the coast made a petition. In his defense, one of the people who signed it was Richard Etheridge, it’s his cousin, even though he burned his station down, but it’s just, it’s small like that, it’s a super small, tight-knit community where everybody knows each other. A lot of people are interrelated. Whether it’s acknowledged or not. They’re just these complex, interesting characters.
LC: All families, so complicated.
EB: We understand.
LC: It’s also like that idea that like, you can talk shit on your family, but other people can’t talk shit on your family.
EB: Oh, exactly. Like if you’re trying to mess with my family, I will sign a petition. Yes, he set fire to my whole thing. But he’s still my cousin.
LC: It’s fine, it’s an internal dispute. You can’t say anything about it. I will not hear anything about it. Okay, what did the Davids have to say about the epic hurricane rescue mission that Carole mentioned?
DZ: Well, you know, in those days, they didn’t have the Weather Channel. So you had no idea when a hurricane was coming or a big storm was coming. But they had barometers in the lifesaving stations, and the barometer was dropping extremely quickly, it got very, very low and they were–when you look at the logs, you can see Richard Etheridge marking, and eventually he writes, “Hurricane,” he writes the word hurricane in his logbook. David and I have held those logbooks, it’s this great big, heavy thing. I imagine they smell like the ocean, but I’m probably just imagining it, but he wrote, “Hurricane,” and they had massive winds. It was so bad that, if you ever go to the Outer Banks, they’re a pretty thin strip of barrier islands. The surf was going up over the barrier islands and meeting with the sound on the other side. So there really wasn’t much in the way of dry land. And some of the stations were being abandoned by the lifesavers, just south of Pea Island.
DWF: The one to the south and the one to the north, so the lifesavers got in their boats and quit the stations.
DZ: They went up in the woods and were just trying to survive, but Etheridge and the crew stayed at Pea Island, and Theodore Meekins, who was a young surfman, probably the best swimmer on the crew, he saw what he thought was a red rocket to the south. And he got Richard Etheridge to come up and look and Richard confirmed it. And so they set off with their equipment down south. You’ll see that famous James Melvin portrait of them going down with a lantern, with all this surf, and they have these great big muscular horses and Win, our friend, who’s a historian, said the horses probably didn’t look like that. They’re probably really rangy and died on the way, you know, they didn’t have great things in the way, but they got down to the Newman, they got abreast of it, and they could see that the ship had settled just offshore.
DWF: Yeah, they typically would be keeping a watch walking between the stations. In those conditions, they couldn’t. Meekins had been on the observation deck. When they took off, you sort of have to make a decision. Most stations didn’t have horses, and in the few cases they did, they had, like Zoby said, they were mules or just these kind of rangy horses. And you had to choose between two methods of rescuing a ship. They would either fire a line out with this small cannon that was called a lyle gun, to fire a line out to the ship. And then they would create a sort of pulley system like old time hose lines. And with that, they would send out this thing called the breaches buoy, which was a circular buoy, and it literally had a pair of breaches, a pants sewn into it. And a crewman would, you know, step into the pants, and they would haul him in back to shore. There’s actually like, you can Google that and you can see there were films of it. It’s the preferred method because it kept the surfmen out of the water. And you know, it was just sort of more stable. But, you can only bring back one person at a time and you had to be able to establish this communication system. The other method was the boat. There was a surf boat, you would have to roll out into the surf and you could bring off more people at a time. But you were also then out in the sea and it was just more dangerous. Richard Etheridge chose to use the lyle gun. Each set of equipment, you know, weighed about a ton. So you couldn’t take boats, you’re just seven men and if you’re lucky, a mule. They get abreast of the stream, and they see it and the people on board see them. You know, in the log afterwards his report he said, “We heard the cry of gladdened hearts.” So the people know they’re about to be rescued. On shore, Richard Etheridge and his crew try to set up the lyle gun, but because the sea is overwashing land, they couldn’t do it. They couldn’t plant the sand maker that you need to stabilize the gun. And so they’re sitting there, this ship is coming apart in front of them, they don’t have the time to go back and get the boat. And so they’re asking themselves, what do we do? And the idea that Richard Etheridge comes up with is they take the line. And he asked for two volunteers, they tie the line between those two surfmen. And then they secure that line with another line to the rest of the men who were gonna stay on shore. And those two surfmen swam out to the boat, swam the line out to the boat, and they secured the line that way, but they still couldn’t use the breaches buoy. So two surfmen at a time, two surfmen would secure themselves to the line, and then go out. And one by one, they brought all the mariners back. There were nine mariners on board, one by one, they brought them back. And, interestingly, amongst sort of the–this wasn’t so uncommon, actually then, but it wasn’t just the captain and his crew, it was the captain, his wife, and three-year-old son, and his crew, and they saved them all that way, before the ship came undone. This is an amazing story. So, is Etheridge starting to get the recognition that he deserves?
EB: That’s where that girl that Carole mentioned, Katie Burkhart, comes in. First, you’ll hear from David Wright Faladé, and then from Carole.
DWF: Not so long after we had started, Zoby and I–so this would have been spring of ’93, the first thing we did, I think we contacted Win Doe. And then we thought, the coastguard men, they must know something. So that same trip that we went to the National Archives, we stopped at the Coast Guard headquarters. I mean, again, there wasn’t ill will on their part, they just didn’t know a lot. The person who–a man who was a commander, now he retired an admiral, a Black Coast Guardsmen was interested in it. But again, he’s got other things to do. So he’s doing the research on his own and putting a little bit of attention to it. But the little research that we had done in a month or so, we kind of knew more than they did. You know, the Newman rescue is the thing that’s most been written about. And how’s it that they never got recognized for that? Roshon was feeling the same way. So he asked us to sort of put together a document, if we could put together a document showing how they had deserved medals and were overlooked, he would pass it up the ranks. So we did that. Zoby and I did this research, we compared the Newman rescue, which is the famous rescue in 1896, to other rescues that had been awarded along the coast, awarded medals. And through our judgment, it seemed just as meritorious for what they did. We put that together, we gave it to the commander Roshon. He passed it up the ranks. And the committee, the Coast Guard committee that awards medals was just like, no, we don’t approve this. And Roshon’s take, it was his personal take, it was nothing that they had told them. But he just felt like they didn’t want to dredge up this history. The Coast Guard has always been known as this, you know, of the branches of the military, the one that was most progressive, they integrated early, they had, you know, women in the forces early, and things like that. And from his take, they just didn’t want to come off as having been racist in this particular case. So Zoby and I are like, okay, well, we’re just gonna go forward with our work, we’re doing it. And we got that grant the following summer, it provided us resources to keep doing research, but they don’t fund writing. So we needed to have a product. And so we put together–again, this is 1994, way before, like, we’re sitting here talking on phones with voice memo, way before that, we put together a slideshow. Zoby and I would narrate it, you know, I’d be one voice, Zoby would be a different voice. Basically, we’re telling the story at these lifesaving museums up and down the coast, and some of them are recorded. And it was a few years after that, we’re still sort of moving forward. But we’re also, you know, trying to finish graduate school, blah, blah, blah. And a few years after that, a little girl, she was 11 years old at the time from Little Washington, North Carolina, had seen a recording of our slideshow. She reached out to us, she got in contact with us. I talked to her on the phone for a long time. So she was, you know, had seen the slideshow, we talked and blah, blah, blah, but she was going to write a report for her school. So she writes this report. But then unbeknownst to Zoby and I, she was like, you know, in the way that 11-year-olds can be outraged, she writes her senator. And her senator, as it turns out is Jesse Helms, and Jesse Helms, you know, segregationist senator from North Carolina. He’s being challenged by Harvey Gantt, who had been the first black mayor of Charlotte, and was running for Senate. And he’s being, you know, he’s got a good challenge. And suddenly, this letter falls in his lap from this, you know, little white girl from Little Washington, North Carolina, about this injustice done to these Black men, and he passes it up the line to the Coast Guard, and then the Coast Guard approved it to give them a medal.
CW: I used to commute about 100 miles to work–not by water, on land. And I heard the story I think on National Public Radio or either read a story about them in the newspaper. And because Katie Burkhardt, eighth grade girl was involved, I thought wow, this shows you that demographics do not determine who can be a hero. Here’s this eighth grade girl who really got these men, you know, long overdue recognition. And she was white, you know–but she was only in eighth grade, you know, who would have thought that an eighth grader could, you know, really move a mountain in that manner. I wanted to show young people that demographics do not determine destiny. The lifesavers were African American and had great responsibility for other people’s lives at a time when they themselves were not extended the rights and privileges. So the story I thought was just so powerful to me that I wanted to share it with young people.
EB: I really love this. I mean, I don’t have any children–yet. But I always talk to Leigh, like and her kids, and she’s always trying to find–like she wants to get like books for her kids that teach them like about all different types of people because like we haven’t had that representation in the past. So I love that Carole like is putting this together to share this story, Sink or Swim: African American Lifesavers of the Outer Banks, for any of you that want to check it out, with the young people everywhere.
LC: I mean, absolutely. I also just love that–I mean, I didn’t nothing that cool when I was in eighth grade.
EB: I know, Katie is a badass.
LC: I’m looking forward to seeing what she does.
EB: Yeah, she’s the best. It is also so, so intense, though, that like these two grown men were like, here’s this thing. And then you have this like little eighth grade white girl who’s like, “I wrote to my senators,” and they were like, “Okay, I guess we’ll listen to Katie,” like, there also is some interesting dynamics there that I think we can all think about. But I am at least happy that eventually they did get their recognition.
LC: You should listen to Katie. I mean, also the really cool kind of ending question mark to the story, which is that in 2011, the Coast Guard named a cutter ship, The Richard Etheridge.
DWF: How that’s overlooked for a hundred years, for recognition–the only recognition they got was the picture that’s on the cover of the book. Somebody was out there and took a picture. And that’s the crew, and it’s from 1896. And it happened after–the picture was taken after that rescue. Aside from that, went about their business, did their job, and they were forgotten.
DZ: When I think about it, again, like I’m looking at the book, had to pull it out today. And we started this project 30 years ago. And, you know, Richard Etheridge is important to me as a person that grew up in that area in Virginia, North Carolina, and I want to celebrate him, I want to see more of him. I want to see his name on things. And here’s a person that touched all these interesting and complex parts of American history. He touched so many things, you know, Reconstruction and Civil War. And he just lived such a great life and thinking about others. Well, he did sign the letter when he was protesting the way people were being treated at the Freedmen’s colony. He signed it on behalf of humanity. And when the Coast Guard was looking for a phrase, they asked us you know, what phrase do we want to put on the ship? They had this you know, billion dollar ship and they needed a phrase for it. We said how about, “On behalf of humanity,” the way that Richard Etheridge signed his letter, and that is on that ship today. And I think that when you think about him, you can think about somebody that truly did things for others. They let us board it at sea, and they took us out in these these really souped up zodiacs, and Dave Wright says he’s afraid of the sea, but he jumped right on that webbing and climbed onto the–climbed onto the Etheridge no problem, and I was sitting back, saying I’m not sure, because it was, you know, it was like three foot rollers out there. But between the boat we were getting off of and onto the Etheridge. So we got on it, and then they brought it into the Port of Miami. It was really fun. It was really neat.
LC: That was such a nice little departure from our regular scheduling. I’m so excited that we got to hear the story. And like, every story, every single episode of his podcast this season is like–why is there not a movie being made about this?
EB: I know, I love it so much. And we also want to say, too, like we know this season is about pirates, but this just felt like something we really needed to share with you all because people are not talking about it enough. And it’s like–
LC: –Like everything that we talk about.
EB: Like everything, yes.
LC: And us, they’re not talking about us enough, either.
EB: The untold history of pirates and–but also like this is a big part of maritime history that we felt was really important to tell you all. Also if you do want to read any of those books just yet again, David and David wrote the book Fire on the Beach: Recovering the Lost Story of Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers. And Carole Weatherford wrote Sink or Swim: African American Lifesavers of the Outer Banks. You should definitely check those out.
LC: Be right back, going to go buy both of those books.
EB: Yes, get those books. In the meantime, here’s a taste of what’s to come on Sweetbitter.
Kelvin Uffre: The spirits industry, like all industries, have not done a good job of telling a diverse and equitable narrative. Those that controlled the slave trade, and then essentially gave birth to the systems that gave birth to capitalist slavery in the Caribbean and all across the diaspora–their narrative is told, so we rarely hear about the Africans and that he knows that we’re also responsible for that.
LC: Thanks for listening to Sweetbitter. Our next episode will be released on Thursday the 24th of March.
EB: If you enjoyed the podcast, please subscribe, rate, and review us. It really helps, especially written reviews on Apple podcasts.
LC: You can also support us on Patreon at patreon.com/sweetbitter.
EB: Sweetbitter is an independent production by me, Ellie Brigida, Alyse Knorr, and Leesa Charlotte, in partnership with Three Springs Media. Our audio engineering is by Sarah Gabrielli. Our production assistant is Thea Smith and our artwork is by Istela Illustrated. Thank you to our guests this week, Carole Weatherford, David Wright Faladé, and David Zoby. You can read more about our guests and where to find them on our website.
LC: You can find us on Twitter and Instagram at @sweetbitterpod, or contact us on our website, sweetbitterpodcast.com.
EB: And now we have a sea shanty this week, written and performed by Alyse, and produced by Joshua.