Uncovering Black History

By on March 18, 2023

Left to right: James Melvin, Nemo Govan, Jerry Frazier, Barkley Collins, Joan Collins and Dean Timothy Sweeney with The Checkerboard Crew painting. (Photo credit Kip Tabb)

Submitted story by Joan L. Collins

Two recent events are reminders of uncovered black history.  The most recent occurred on Saturday, March 4 at the College of The Albemarle – Dare, where our black history program Checkerboard Crews and Colored News was presented.  The event included the unveiling of a new painting, The Checkerboard Crew by the artist, James Melvin, a painting commissioned as part of our continued effort to promote the black history of Roanoke Island.  In this instance, it is the story of integrated crews, known as “checkerboard crews,” crews with both white and black surfmen at US Life-Saving Service (USLSS) stations on the Outer Banks.

The program provided our organization the opportunity to tell the story of the integrated lifesaving stations during the Jim Crow era and to encourage people to think about why surfmen were categorized strictly as white or black at the time.  Yet for many surfman their physical appearance looked very much the same.  Men with thick mustaches, tanned skin, and beards, but whose lives, experiences, and backgrounds were different. The Pea Island station is a prime example of this.

Recent research has revealed an unexpected diversity in staffing at the Pea Island station as well as neighboring stations. This research also revealed that, although the US Life-Saving Service (USLSS) seemingly abolished “checkerboard” crews not long after the end of Reconstruction, integration persisted in one form or another in North Carolina.

Research shows that Keepers of at least four stations, the Pea Island station and three of its neighbors (Oregon Inlet, New Inlet, Bodie Island) employed black and white, old and young, native and immigrant 1880 to accomplish the mission. In addition, the Cape Fear station located near Wilmington, North Carolina opened in 1882 with two black surfmen. Although integration at these four Outer Banks stations seems to have been limited to men who worked at stations during the winter and as substitute surfmen, surfmen who were not white continually served at stations from 1897 to 1914.

The second event, held on February 12, is another reminder of uncovered black history.  On this date, PIPSI joined the US Coast Guard, members of the Historic Jarvisburg Colored School (Currituck County), private property owners, and others to celebrate the recent discovery of the gravesite of Captain Lewis Wescott in Jarvisburg.   Wescott was charge of the Pea Island Lifesaving Station for 16 years and longer than any previous Keeper.

PIPSI welcomes the opportunity to collaborate with other organizations and businesses to help raise the visibility of black history and to secure funding for continued research.  Our goal is to make the black history of this area known and recognized as an important part of the history of this area, as black history has been overshadowed by more popular history here.

The creation of our new logo—a black, white, and checkered life-ring—is also a transition period for our organization.  Because of limited resources and no active volunteers at the present time other than PIPSI Youth volunteers, we have decided not to have regular operating hours at the Pea Island Cookhouse Museum for the time being.  Recently, the decision was made to open the Cookhouse by “appointment only.”

During the March 4 program at the COA, those in attendance were also provided a copy of our new brochure of Black History Sites on Roanoke Island.  We are currently exploring ways to secure funding to print and distribute the brochure to locations throughout the community.

Prints of Mr. Melvin’s new painting, The Checkerboard Crew, are available for purchase and pick-up at the Pea Island Cookhouse Museum located at 622 Sir Walter Raleigh Street in Manteo at pre-arranged times.  The cost is $25.00 per print. If you would like to arrange to purchase the print, please contact our organization at friends@peaislandpreservationsociety.com. We also plan to soon offer this print and prints of two other paintings Mr. Melvin did for our organization that are on display at the Cookhouse Museum for sale through our web page.

Please also contact us if you would like to volunteer or support our organization in any other way.  We welcome help with grant research and grant writing, enhancing our website and Facebook pages, developing additional social media methods, and with other projects planned.

Joan L. Collins is the Director of Outreach and Education at the Pea Island Preservation Society, Inc.

For  more information visit Pea Island Preservation Society and their Facebook page.


See what people are saying:

  • WindyBill

    It is great to see that these Real Men understand that what matters is not skin color, but a Really good mustache! These, their brothers in service, as well as Etheridges’ crew are Real American Heros. Hopefully more school kids will learn of their contribution to American history.

    Saturday, Mar 18 @ 2:38 pm