Richard Etheridge: The Hero of the Pea Island Life Saving Station

Richard Etheridge, far left, and the Pea Island Life-Saving crew in front of their station, circa 1890. U.S. Coast Guard photo

     Every year around black history month we talk about the great "firsts." Those who broke through racial barriers to become the first African-Americans to do something. In every case there was a lot of pain  and heartache leading up to success. In this next story, The "first" accomplishment only scratches the surface of what this man was able to do in his life.
Pea Island Station - Library of Congress
        Richard Etheridge was the first African American "Keeper" or Commander of a Life Saving station. He was also commander of the first all-black Coast Guard crew.
     He was promoted from the lowest to the highest position. His all-white crew quit... so Etheridge recruited an all African American crew from nearby stations.
   His station was burned to the ground by an angry white mob.
   But that was nearly the end of this man's journey.
   According to the town of Manteo, North Carolina, Etheridge was born as a slave.
   His owner taught him how to read and write.
Pea Island Life Saving Station -Library of Congress
   When the nation was split in two by the Civil War, Etheridge served as a Sergeant in the Colored Troops of the Union Army. While there he fought for the rights of people who were being mistreated in a Freedmen's Colony... having their homes broken into by those in power.
    Here's how the Coast Guard describes one of the crew's most daring rescues.

"Etheridge was “one of the best surfmen on this part of the coast of North Carolina,” and on October 11, 1896, Etheridge led his crew on a daring rescue that serves as a testament to his exemplary skills as a leader and a surfman.
Pea Island Life Saving station- library of congress
The three-masted schooner, E.S. Newman, was caught in a powerful storm off the eastern coast of the United States. The storm, so severe that Etheridge had suspended beach patrols that day, blew E.S. Newman 100 miles off course and grounded the schooner two miles south of the Pea Island station.
After a distress flare was sighted, Etheridge launched a surfboat into the forceful waves and currents. The crew struggled to make their way to the schooner, and when they finally arrived they found they could not reach the vessel because it was not on dry land. Etheridge, seeing no room for failure, tied two of his strongest surfmen together and connected them to shore by a long line. The surfmen fought their way through the breaking waves as they went from the schooner to dry land ten times and rescued the entire crew of the E.S. Newman.
For the rescue of all souls aboard E.S. Newman the Coast Guard awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal to the Pea Island crew. Countless other heroic acts were performed by Etheridge and his men and his dedication to being a lifesaver was unyielding as he served for more than 20 years until his death on May 8, 1900.


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