Associated Press Writer
SOSO, Miss. — One hundred and fifty years have passed since the Civil War, but in Mississippi, the descendants of a legendary rebel are still separating the facts of his life from fiction.
Newton Knight, a white farmer from central Mississippi’s Jones County, rebelled against the Confederate Army. He spent years evading capture, living in swamps and the Piney Woods. He married a white woman named Serena and later moved in with a former slave named Rachel. She was owned by Knight’s family and carried their surname, and she had helped him during his days dodging the Confederate Army.
He shared his life with both women.
Today, Florence Knight Blaylock, 81, and her sister, Dorothy Knight Marsh, 69, are among those fascinated with the family legend. The sisters — who live in Soso — consider Newton and Rachel Knight their great-grandparents.
“His life was always a mystery and sort of like the big folklore of Jones County,” Marsh said.
The story’s allure is heightened by layers of misdirection and the veil of time. The legend of Newton Knight, his band of anti-Confederate men, and their so-called Free State of Jones is very much alive for the residents of this rural county, in a state that still shares its flag with a symbol of Confederate rebellion.
Today’s Knights, unencumbered by the taboos surrounding Newton’s interracial relationship and his desertion, are finally able to gather to share pictures, documents and compare stories that might lead them toward the truth of their ancestors’ lives.
A few key details are agreed upon: In the 1850s, Newton Knight worked a stretch of the rolling farmland in Jones County, an area with soil unsuitable for cotton and therefore home to fewer slaves, and married a woman named Serena. He volunteered for the Confederate Army, but later left and actively rebelled against it with a group of men. Knight claimed benefits from the Union Army, arguing that he and his men fought on behalf of the Union as an ad-hoc unit, but he was never paid.
Knight had nine children with Serena, and later had several more with Rachel, who he was buried alongside him when he died in 1922.
Knight’s actions are sometimes attributed to abolitionist values or to his anger toward wealthy Southerners exempt from military service. Some say Jones County seceded from the Confederacy; others say the rebellion was less organized.
According to historian Victoria Bynum, the county first acquired a reputation as the “Free State of Jones” because of the plentiful land that could be claimed by squatters. The title gained new significance after Knight’s rebellion against the Confederate Army.
Some say Rachel was of African descent, while others say she was an American Indian. Still others say she had a mixture of African, American Indian and white ancestry. Confusion is increased by the existence of several photographs purporting to show Rachel — all of different women.
The popular narrative holds that Serena, Newton’s wife, was white, but others say she also had American Indian ancestry.
Knight also may have had children with George Anne, Rachel’s daughter with another man.
If the Knight story was not complicated enough, it turns out many of the descendants are related to both Rachel and Serena. That’s because Serena and Newton’s children and Rachel’s children from a different man married each other. Later generations of Knight cousins also married one another.
When it comes to family history, misinformation about relatives several generations back is usually inconsequential. But during the Jim Crow era, the descendants of Knight had much at stake and faced arrest and other indignities because of their ethnicity.
Davis Knight, a great-grandson of Newton Knight, Serena Knight and Rachel Knight, was tried in court on charges of illegal interracial marriage in 1948. Edgar and Randy Williamson, Newton Knight’s great-great grandchildren, went to court in the 1960s after they were banned from a white school.
Blaylock recalls her family being called names like “half-breed” and “white negro,” or worse, in the 1930s or ‘40s. She remembers being stared at and whispered about as a child, and watching a band of rowdy white men pull her father and brother out of the house to beat them.
Bynum, whose family also descends from Jones County, has written about the complicated social and legal terrain Knight’s descendants were forced to negotiate. Her work’s been made more challenging by conflicting stories passed down by different branches of the Knight family.
“I always try to tell the story and not dismiss it, but I also point out that there’s conflicting evidence and conflicting stories. But as a historian, I don’t feel like I have to have the final word,” said Bynum, who attempts to show the Knight story in context in her book “The Free State of Jones.”
An example is Bynum’s disagreement with Dianne Walkup, the great-great granddaughter of Newton, Serena and Rachel Knight.
Walkup, 60, was raised to identify with her American Indian ancestry, which she primarily attributes to Rachel. While Bynum says there is no concrete evidence to show that any of the original family was American Indian, she also says it’s impossible to prove that Walkup is mistaken.
“The story is absolutely fascinating, and I imagine that a lot of people, if they looked back at their family history, they’d find fascinating stories. This one really stands out,” Walkup said.
The surge of interest in their family history from the living Knights is partly attributable to changing attitudes toward race.
Early descendants of Knight stood to lose legal privileges by admitting their connection to Rachel and therefore made a point of rejecting her role in the family. Despite changing attitudes, several descendants refused interviews, with one citing a promise of confidentiality made to deceased family members.
Marsh and Blaylock said they don’t have strong feelings about Newton or Rachel. They both spent decades living in other parts of the country, and their lineage hasn’t affected them as sharply as previous generations. If anything, they said they relate to Newton’s rebellious spirit, and his willingness to buck society to do what he thought was right.
“We’re all go-getters,” Marsh said. “We’re all independent in our own ways.”