Captain Richard Etheridge was the first African-American to command a Life Saving Station when he was appointed in 1880 as keeper of Pea Island Life-Saving Station, about 30 miles north of Cape Hatteras, N.C. When he arrived to assume his command, the white surfmen abandoned the station, unwilling to serve under a black man. Other black surfmen from other stations were transferred to Pea Island and it became the only all-black lifesaving station in the nation from 1880 until 1947.
A former slave and Buffalo Soldier, Etheridge was known as one of the most courageous and ingenious lifesavers in the Revenue Cutter Service, forerunner of the Coast Guard. He also was known for his rigorous lifesaving drills that enabled his crew to tackle all lifesaving tasks. On Oct. 11, 1896, Etheridge's rigorous training drills proved invaluable.
According to a Coast Guard historical account, surfman Theodore Meekins spotted the Newman’s distress flare and immediately notified Etheridge. Etheridge gathered his crew and launched the surfboat. Battling a strong tide and sweeping currents, the crew struggled but was unable to reach the schooner, which was in danger of breaking up.
When normal rescue procedures proved impractical, Etheridge directed a daring technique. Two surfmen tied a heavy line around their bodies, which bound them together, while the remaining surfmen secured the shore end of the line. Grasping another line, the pair fought their way through the wind and roaring breakers.
Upon reaching the ship, they secured the line and began carrying the passengers one by one to shore. The seemingly inexhaustible Pea Island crewmembers journeyed through the perilous waters ten times and rescued the entire crew of the E.S. Newman, including the captain, his wife and child.
|The first all-black crew that overcame a myriad of obstacles in a turbulent era, repeatedly proving their courage and skill (1928). Click here for a larger image. (Credit: USCG)|
Ellen Gardiner, wife of Newman Capt. Sylvester Gardiner, wrote in her journal years later: “I was tied to the mainmast of the ship with our three-year old son. I was singing to young Thomas, as I wanted the last thing for him to hear was his mother's voice as we prepared to meet our creator, when from the tumultuous surf came the hand of salvation – the hand of a black man, Theodore Meekins.”
Etheridge served as keeper for 20 more years. The Pea Island Life-Saving Station crew remained all-black through World War II. After the war, the station was decommissioned.
In 1992, the Coast Guard Cutter Pea Island was commissioned in memory of the African-American crews at Pea Island. In 1996, a hundred years after the dramatic Newman rescue, the Coast Guard awarded the Gold Life-Saving Medal posthumously to Etheridge and his crew.