‘We want it to be told’  

By on February 3, 2023

Pea Island Preservation Society celebrates Black history on the Outer Banks

Pea Island Preservation Society Director of Outreach and Education Joan Collins is deeply connected to Black history here. (Mary Ellen Riddle)

Joan Collins is firmly anchored to the Black history of the Outer Banks. “My family history here can definitely be connected to the roles Blacks played in the US Life-Saving Service,” the US Coast Guard and the Freedman’s Colony,” she said.

Her family is also part of the Roanoke-Hatteras Algonquian-speaking tribe and of a period when Native Americans were often identified as being Black. “I don’t have enough fingers to count all my connections,” she noted.

The Manteo resident is the director of outreach and education for the Pea Island Preservation Society (PIPSI). The society’s six-member board and three honorary board members are dedicated to bringing awareness to the compelling Black history of the area that includes accomplishments that have received national recognition. The non-profit organization is dedicated to promoting the legacy of Richard Etheridge, the Pea Island Lifesavers and the Black history of Roanoke Island.

In that effort, during February—National Black History Month—a spotlight will shine on this history through multiple local events. The topic at the center is the Pea Island Life-Saving Station, which, over time, shifted from running with an integrated “Checkerboard Crew”—made up of Black and White surfmen—to an all-Black crew with Richard Etheridge at the helm.

Etheridge, born into enslavement on Roanoke Island, was the first Black man in the nation to be appointed to the position of Keeper of a lifesaving station. On Oct. 11, 1896, members of Etheridge’s crew tied themselves together and swam though hurricane seas littered with shipwreck debris to rescue nine people who had been aboard the E.S. Newman. A century later, in 1996, he and his surfmen were posthumously awarded gold lifesaving medals for the heroic rescues.

Graphic illustration showing Keeper Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers in front of the schooner, E.S. Newman.  Graphic illustration by Francesca Fradianni, courtesy of Pea Island Preservation Society.

Kicking off February’s events is a reception for a month-long exhibit of paintings and photographs at Dare Arts in Manteo.  A Checkered Past, The Story of Keeper Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesaving Station features paintings by Nags Head artist James Melvin that tell the story of Keeper Etheridge and the Pea Island Life-Saving Station. Melvin is known for his collection of portraits of Pea Island lifesavers that is on display at the NC Aquarium on Roanoke Island. Richard Etheridge once owned land near the aquarium and is buried at the state site.

The Dare Arts exhibit includes a series of charcoal portraits by Jasmin Miller—a tribute to her family’s connection and dedicated service to the U.S. Life-Saving Service and U.S. Coast Guard.

A portrait of Lieutenant Herbert M. Collins, Joan Collins’ father, painted by the late John de la Vega, will also be on display. Herbert Collins entered the Coast Guard in 1939 and served at the Pea Island Station from 1940-1947. A native of Roanoke Island, Collins grew up longing to be a surfman, according to his daughter. “Fondly called the station’s last ‘Last Keeper,’ he was put in charge of the station before it was decommissioned,”’ she said.

The Herbert M. Collins Boathouse, located in Collins Park on Roanoke Island, where the Pea Island Cookhouse Museum and statue of Richard Etheridge stand, was named after Collins whose family has contributed more than 400 years of combined service in the U.S. Life-Saving Service and U.S. Coast Guard. Bringing the cookhouse to Manteo was the vision of the late Dellerva Collins, the mother of historian Darrell Collins who is the president of the PIPSI board.  She served as a Manteo town commissioner for more than 26 years and as Mayor Pro-Tem.

The location of Collins Park is significant. “Much of the Black community on Roanoke Island live within walking distance,” said Collins. And the Freedman’s Colony—where thousands of Black people fled to during the Civil War, was on Roanoke Island.

“Upon the death of my father and shortly before on a personal level, I began to understand the importance of the history,” Collins explained. “It was a wonderful thing my father could share his stories. He definitely instilled in me the desire to do much more.”

The integrated crew’s history will be the focus of a talk “Checkerboard Crews and Colored News” at the College of the Albemarle this month. A new painting by Melvin, The Checkerboard Crew, will be unveiled. The painting was commissioned to further bring awareness to the integrated crews.

Checkerboard Crews and Colored News is an intentional title,”’ said Collins pointing to a time when coverage of Blacks in newspapers was listed as “Colored News” and was sparse.  But she stated that what was happening with the checkerboard crews was noteworthy with black and white men working hand in hand during a time when Post-Civil War racism was a reality.

PIPSI received grants from the Z Smith Reynolds Foundation and the Outer Banks Community Foundation that help support their efforts to raise awareness of Black history.

As a result, they were able to create the education initiative “Freedmen, Surfman, Heroes,” a program that includes a live performance that brings to life the history. They also are developing a virtual pilot program featuring six modules for grades 3-4 that include topics on Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesaving Station, the Freedman’s Colony and the role Blacks played in the Civil War as well as the experiences by other people of color here such as Native Americans.

Raising awareness has taken time, but Collins feels positive about the progress being made by not only PIPSI, but that was aided by pivotal people in the community, including the late Virginia Tillett, a Freedman’s Colony descendent. Tillett was the first Black person elected to the Dare County School Board and to the Dare County Board of Commissioners. Roanoke Island’s Community Center is named after Tillett. Collins says her two aunts, Dellerva Collins and Naomi Collins, are fondly remembered for the key role they played in raising awareness of the area’s Black history and for spearheading related projects.

Through educational programs and moving and shaking in the community, Collins is hoping to foster an environment where people talk about the Black history of the area and that PIPSI thrives in the short and long term. “We are doing this because the history is such a significant story – a significant part of the attraction of this area,” she said. “We want it to be told. The energy is happening to take this history to another level.”

A Checkered Past, an exhibit of paintings and photographs related to the history of Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Life-Saving Station.

Dare Arts, 300 Queen Elizabeth Ave., Manteo

Reception, February 3, 6-8 p.m. On exhibit through February 25. Tues. – Fri., 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., Sat., 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.


  • Tyrrell Johnson

    Go figure, only during Black History Month does this publication finally acknowledge MY PEOPLE. Go through the motions, back to normal in March.

    Saturday, Feb 4 @ 9:38 am
  • Dethrol

    Racebait much, Mr. Johnson? Your subjective outrage is priceless and way, way off the mark (no pun intended, Mark). Step away from the kool-aid and examine the Voice comprehensively, rather than with the intent to scream racism. I think you’ll find the Voice is and has been more than sufficiently balanced across the entire publication with respect to the demographics, issues, and activities that affect our community. Unless, of course, your perpetual victim status prevents you from being honest in word and deed.

    Saturday, Feb 4 @ 2:44 pm
  • Chris Smith

    @ – johnson go figure only during black history month Tyrrell Johnson has to make one of the most heroic historical lifesaving rescues of all times racial. Whether your black or white you should be proud of the pea island lifesaving station of 1896 and how many doors it opened for so many people. You should be ashamed, we’re proud this legendary coastguardsman. Don’t spin it to make people feel sorry for you. Richard Ethridge was a great man don’t belittle his name for your gain

    Saturday, Feb 4 @ 3:54 pm
  • Glenn

    Couldn’t disagree more with Mr. Johnson. The Voice has always strive to be fair with all & they add much value to our community…to ALL members of our community. Keep up the great work, Voice staff!

    Monday, Feb 6 @ 4:08 pm