The Outer Banks has a rich and multifaceted history, which includes many significant events and local icons. Twiddy’s new documentary series, Icons of the Outer Banks, aims to tell the story of some of the people whose efforts have left a lasting impression. The first episode of the docuseries features Richard Etheridge, the first black man to lead a crew of surfmen in the U.S. Lifesaving Service.
Richard Etheridge was born a slave on the Outer Banks in 1842. Raised in the Etheridge household, his experience was different than slavery as most people know it. It was illegal to educate slaves at the time, however, Richard Etheridge’s master taught him to read and write. After the Battle of Roanoke Island in February of 1862, he joined the 36th U.S. Colored Infantry and fought in the Civil War. After the war, Etheridge returned to the Outer Banks and got married, farmed and fished, and joined the U.S. Lifesaving Service. Etheridge served as Surfman #6, which was the lowest rank, at Bodie Island Lifesaving Station.
In 1880, the former keeper of Pea Island Lifesaving Station was accused of improperly handling a recent shipwreck. Richard Etheridge was asked to serve at Pea Island Lifesaving Station as Keeper, the highest rank. As a result, the white surfmen at the station left, refusing to work for a black keeper. From that point forward, the Pea Island Lifesaving Station became all-black and gained a reputation for being one of the best stations on the coast.
One night in October of 1896, the Pea Island surfmen performed a harrowing, well-known rescue during a hurricane. The schooner E.S. Newman was traveling from Providence, Rhode Island, carrying the captain, his wife, their 3-year-old son, and six others when their ship grounded. It was around 9:00 pm when the patrolman thought he saw a flare. He alerted Etheridge, and they realized there was a ship in trouble when they saw a second flare. Due to the severe weather, they couldn’t launch the surf boat or use the Lyle gun, which was commonly used in sea rescues. The two best swimmers tied a rope around themselves and started swimming out to the ship while Etheridge and the rest of the crew held the rope on shore. The rescue of all nine on board the grounded ship was completed by 1:00 am. In 1996, the U.S. Coast Guard awarded Richard Etheridge and his crew the Gold Lifesaving Medal posthumously for the heroic rescue.
Richard Etheridge served as the keeper until he died at the Pea Island Lifesaving Station at age 58 in January of 1900. The Pea Island Lifesaving Station continued to have an all-black crew until it was decommissioned in 1947.
In more recent history, Hurricane Irene hit the Outer Banks in 2011 and cut a new inlet from the ocean to the sound, close to the site of the old Pea Island Lifesaving Station. A new bridge was constructed over the inlet and named the Captain Richard Etheridge Bridge in honor of the Outer Banks icon.