Richard Etheridge-Integrity and Courage
If Dare County Commissioners have their way, the new bridge over the New Inlet on Hatteras Island will be named the Richard Etheridge Bridge. Provided NCDOT agrees to the name, it would be a fitting tribute to a remarkable man.
In 1880, Richard Etheridge became first the African-American to command a Lifesaving Station, and the bravery and training he demanded of his crew would earn Station #17—the Pea Island Station—the Coast Guard’s highest honor.
But that is just one part of his story.
Born a slave on Roanoke Island in 1842, the property of John Etheridge, there is reason to believe he was the son of the slave holder.
According to a written statement by John Etheridge, Richard was, as “…an infant, child, boy, youth, and man…” raised as member of the family. So close was the relationship that the slave was taught to read and write, a skill that was expressly prohibited by North Carolina law. It is also significant that after the Civil War, Richard returned to Roanoke Island and lived on the Etheridge property until he married in 1867.
Although close to the Etheridge family, it is clear he did not wish to be a slave and when Union forces captured Roanoke Island in 1862, Etheridge shook off his shackles of slavery and volunteered to serve in the Union Army, although he was unable to enlist until 1863 when President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
Etheridge served in the 36th United States Colored Infantry (USCI) Regiment until he mustered out in October of 1866. The regiment began service guarding Confederate POWs but eventually saw action during the campaign to retake Petersburg.
Because of his leadership and literacy, he rose through the ranks, becoming a sergeant in September of 1863 and was the regimental Commissary Sergeant when he left service. Commissary Sergeant is no longer part of the US Army, but it would be the equivalent of a Master Sergeant.
Noted throughout his life for his integrity, he demonstrated even in a segregated army, a willingness to take on leaders that he felt were abusing their position.
Stationed in Virginia in 1865, word reached him of abuses at the Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony—a settlement of recently freed slaves on the north end of the island. To protest he wrote to Oliver Otis Howard, steward of the newly established Freedman’s Bureau, writing, “The white soldiers break into our houses act as they please…and if any one defends their-Selves against them they are taken to the guard house for it. So our familys have no protection when (the Union soldiers)…here to protect them and will not do it.” He signed the letter, “in behalf of humanity,” a phrase that would come to define his actions.
He returned to Roanoke Island, married and became a father, earning a living at fishing and farming, much like most of the residents of the area.
In 1874, the federal government, recognizing that an investment had to me made in maritime safety, built seven lifesaving stations in North Carolina. An experienced and respected waterman, Etheridge had no problem signing on, although because he was African-American he held the lowest rank possible—Surfman #6.
Although lifesaving stations had been constructed there were a number of problems with the service. Employment was seasonal, ending in November and not beginning again until spring; supervisory positions were by political appointment and crews and equipment often unprepared for the rigors of ocean rescue.
On November 24, 1877 the USS Huron ran aground 200 yards off the Nags Head beach. Of a crew of 132, only 34 survived; two months later, on January 31, 1878 the Metropolis broke up and sank just 100 yards from the Currituck Banks with a loss of 102 lives.
The two disasters so close together rallied the nation behind a professional year around lifesaving service.
Rife with corruption and cronyism, changes had to be made and Sumner Kimball, the Superintendent of the Lifesaving Service was the man to make those changes. He demanded his inspectors find the best and root out the worst.
One of the best was Surfman #6, Richard Etheridge.“Taking him all in all, (he) seems to be a superior man for the position,” Inspector Frank Newcomb wrote in recommending Etheridge for a promotion.
In 1880 the Pea Island Lifesaving Station was put under the command of Richard Etheridge. In the 19th century, no white man would serve under an African-American in any capacity, and if the Lifesaving Station was going to be manned, it would have to be by an all African-American crew.
Even with that provision, hatred still existed, and the station was burned down before Etheridge could take command. Typical of how he went about his work, Etheridge oversaw the construction of a new station, housing his men in the storage area until the new building was completed.
He was known as a driven task master, drilling his crew incessantly, pushing them to be their best. Indirect evidence suggests he felt his crew had to be better than the white crews because of their race, although their are no writings at the time he was a supervisor that indicate he felt that way.
Because he crews were so well trained, though, his crews were widely respected and regardless of race trained regularly with neighboring lifesaving stations.
On October 11, 1896 the training paid off.
En route from Providence, Rhode Island to Norfolk, Virginia the three-masted schooner Newman ran into a hurricane that paralleled the Eastern seaboard. The winds and seas stripped the sails from the masts and the ship drifted until it ran aground two miles south of the Pea Island Station.
The weather had turned so bad, that Etheridge had halted foot patrols, but Surfman Theodore Meekins, was on watch when he thought he saw a distress flare. An answering flare went up from the station and there was a response from the Newman.
The crew sprang into action, using the station’s mules to haul the equipment to the scene, but it was clear the Lyle Guns, used to shoot a lifeline to the ship could not be used in the weather conditions. Instead, lifelines were tied to crew members who swam through the surf to the ship, tied a lifeline to crew members and hauled them to safety.
It took 100 years for the bravery and skill of the crew of Pea Island Lifesaving Station to be fully recognized, but on March 5, 1996 President Clinton awarded the descendants of Richard Etheridge, Benjamin Bowser, Dorman Pugh, Theodore Meekins, Lewis Wescott, Stanley Wise and William Irving the Gold Lifesaving Medal, the highest medal awarded by the Coast Guard for heroism during a rescue.
Etheridge was more than a station supervisor. A community leader, he may have been a county commissioner from 1874-1876, although the records are not completely clear. It also appears as though he served on what would now be called the Board of Education at various times.
He passed away while on duty at Station #17 from what is believed to have been a mosquito borne illness.
In 2012, the Coast Guard took delivery of the USCGC Richard Etheridge, a 154’ Sentinel-class cutter. Its motto is “in the service of humanity.