For more information about the U.S. Life Saving Service Station on Pea Island and other stories about the African American contributions to the maritime industry, visit www.voyagetodiscovery.org.
Slits of sunlight pierced through the white-framed Pea Island Cookhouse Museum as Frank Hester stepped onto the wooden porch, unlocked the front door, and walked into his ancestral past.
Hester, an easy-going man with a warm smile, stood inside his family-owned museum in Manteo, North Carolina and pointed to a collection of old black-and-white photographs that adorned the walls of the gallery. Standing at attention and dressed in a crisp button-down uniform was Dorman Pue, Hester’s forefather, and one of seven black men who became legends while manning the now-infamous U.S. Lifesaving Service Station on Pea Island.
In the dark hours in the fall of 1896, the black surfmen staged the daring rescue of nine shipwrecked passengers – including a three-year-old girl – when a storm-battered schooner ran aground in raging seas off the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
The all-black crew of the Pea Island Lifesaving Service Station were ordinary men, Hester said, who made history through extraordinary sacrifice 117 years ago.
“Being a descendant from Dorman Pue means more to me now than it did the first time I learned about it,” said Hester. “When you realize your past has a connection to today and different things those guys had to go through back in those days when opportunities weren’t as easy or available they had to prove themselves and paved the way to make things easier for me and for other people coming along.”
As Hester walked around the three-room museum on Roanoke Island, he was filled with pride: He shared stories about the memorabilia inside the glass cases and reminisced about Pue, who, like his fellow Pea Island surfmen, began training each day on the North Carolina beach at 6 a.m. and ended their workouts 12 hours later.
Pue, who was Hester’s great-grandmother’s brother, served under Richard Etheridge, the first African American to command the U.S. Life Saving Service Station on Pea Island, North Carolina, considered one of the busiest lifesaving stations in the country because ships were often wrecked by powerful squalls and storm-soaked travelers needed specialists to pull them from the sea. When the Pea Island station was deactivated in 1947, records showed 609 life-saving rescues.
Etheridge, who was born a slave in 1842, was paid $400 a year for his duties as commander of the Pea Island station between 1880 and 1900. He was praised by his superiors as one of the finest surfmen in the U.S. Life Saving Service, which ultimately became the U.S. Coast Guard. Etheridge handpicked a team of black surfmen who were outstanding swimmers, who were in top physical condition, and who trained for treacherous conditions in the murky waters of the Outer Banks by rowing for hours against strong currents.
The Pea Island station, built in 1878, became the only U.S. Life Saving Station in the nation with an all-black crew. Because whites refused to work for Etheridge, he hired an all-black team that replaced the existing white squad who were dismissed “for negligence in the performance of their duty” in 1880, following the wrecking of a British ship where 17 people died.
When Etheridge took over the Pea Island station in 1880, the station mysteriously burned down, but was rebuilt months later. For years, black residents whispered that whites set fire to the station because they resented Etheridge’s appointment.
Today, every so often, Hester takes a 30-minute drive across the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge over the Oregon Inlet and onto Pea Island. From the peak of the sand dunes that stretch for miles, he ponders his heritage while watching the rolling waves crash the shore where the Pea Island Lifesaving crew once trained.
“We are all standing on the shoulders of people who came before us,” said Hester, adding that the black surfmen faced continuous racism throughout their careers. “It’s also important to me to make a connection to my kids to show that what you do does make a difference. You don’t have to do super ordinary things, but you just do your part to be the very best person that you can be and let that guide you into the future.”
On a stormy night on October 11, 1896, the black surfmen from the Pea Island Life Saving Station were guided into their future.
A three-masted schooner, E.S. Newman, was en route to Norfolk, Virginia from Providence, Rhode Island when a torrential storm ripped her sails and she ran aground two miles south of the Pea Island Life Saving Station after drifting nearly 100 miles off course. Surfman Theodore Meekins, however, saw what he thought was a distress signal and lit a flare. He then called to Etheridge to look for a return signal. Both strained to look through the storm. Moments later, they saw a faint signal of a vessel in distress.
According to U.S. Coast Guard records, Etheridge, a veteran of nearly twenty years, prepared his crew. They hitched mules to a beach cart and rushed toward the stranded boat and found Captain S.A. Gardiner, his wife, his three-year-old daughter, and six others clinging to the wreckage. So Etheridge directed a daring rescue: He told two surfmen to bind themselves together with a line.
Grasping another line, the men moved into the violent currents while the remaining surfmen secured the shore end.
The two surfmen reached the wreck and, using a heaving stick, got a line on board. Once a line was tied around one of the crewmen, all three were then pulled back through the surf by the crew on the beach. The remaining eight persons were carried to shore, one by one.