The Life and Death of Davis Knight after State vs. Knight (1948)

Renegade South

By Vikki Bynum

Courthouse in downtown Clinton,  Feliciana Parish, Louisiana Courthouse in downtown Clinton, Feliciana Parish, Louisiana. The Davis Knight trial will be filmed here for the movie, Free State of Jones.

The Ellisville Courthouse, Ellisville, Mississippi, where Davis Knight was tried and found guilty of miscegenation. The Ellisville Courthouse, Ellisville, Mississippi, where Davis Knight was tried and found guilty of miscegenation. Photo by Victoria Bynum.

Davis Knight, the great-grandson of the infamous “Free State of Jones” guerrilla, Newt Knight, became the centerpiece of his own drama some 25 years after the death of his notorious ancestor. Although Davis was descended from Newt and his wife, Serena, both of whom were white, he was also the great-grandson of Rachel Knight, a former slave of Newt’s grandfather. And although Davis was white in appearance, because of his descent from Rachel, he was defined as black by his white neighbors. Some of those neighbors did not take kindly to Davis Knight’s marriage in 1946 to Junie Lee Spradley, a local white woman. In 1948, Davis…

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Serena Knight

Renegade South

There are many participants in the Free State of Jones that I wish I knew more about. One of them is Serena Knight, the white wife of Newt Knight. 

Serena is often forgotten in the rush to spotlight Newt’s interracial relationship with Rachel.  And, yet, Serena appears central to Newt’s decision to desert the Confederate Army; she was the mother of nine of his children. And she still lived with him in 1880, long after Rachel had begun to give birth to children believed to be fathered by her husband.

There was nothing unusual about Southern white men having sexual relations with black women, either forced or consensual, right under their wives’ noses, particularly before slavery was abolished. But Newt and Serena Knight’s post-Reconstruction interracial homestead was quite unusual. In 1878, two of their children, Matt and Mollie, married two of Rachel’s children, Fannie and Jeffrey. That made three interracial Knight unions that lived on the same land, although not in the same households. By 1880, these Knights constituted an interracial community that continued to grow over…

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