Jake Murray

STANDARDS

CCSS: 6.SP.B.4, MP2, MP3, MP4

TEKS: 6.12A, 6.12B


Surf Savers

For 68 years, an all-black crew saved dozens of lives along the Atlantic Coast

More than 100 years ago, on October 11, 1896, a terrifying hurricane struck the Atlantic Coast. Strong winds and huge waves blew the E.S. Newman 100 miles off course. Badly damaged, the ship sent up distress flares off the Outer Banks in North Carolina.

Luckily, Theodore Meekins spotted the flares. He was a member of the Pea Island Lifesavers. The Lifesavers were one of hundreds of crews that responded to water-based disasters on U.S. coasts. But the Pea Island Lifesavers were unique: They were the only all-black crew. 

On October 11, 1896, a terrifying hurricane struck the Atlantic Coast. The powerful storm had strong winds. The winds blew a ship called the E.S. Newman 100 miles off course. The badly damaged ship sent up distress flares off the Outer Banks in North Carolina.

Theodore Meekins spotted the flares. He was a member of the Pea Island Lifesavers. The Lifesavers were one of hundreds of crews that responded to water-based disasters on U.S. coasts. But the Pea Island Lifesavers were unique. They were the only all-black crew. 

Normally, the Lifesavers would send out a boat or fire a rescue line using a large gun. But this storm was too fierce. So Richard Etheridge, the keeper, or leader of the station, asked volunteers to swim out to the Newman with a rescue line. It took 10 trips to bring all 9 people on board—including the captain’s wife and 3-year-old son—to safety. “You had these black men reaching up out of the surf and saving white people,” says David Wright, who co-authored a book about the Lifesavers called Fire on the Beach. It was an incredible rescue by one of the best Lifesavers stations on the East Coast.

The Lifesavers normally sent out a boat to do a rescue. Sometimes they would fire a rescue line using a large gun. But this storm was too strong. The keeper, or leader, of the station was a man named Richard Etheridge. He asked for volunteers to swim out to the Newman with a rescue line. It took 10 trips to bring all nine people on board to safety. They even rescued the captain's wife and 3-year-old son. "You had these black men reaching up out of the surf and saving white people," says David Wright. Wright co-authored a book about the Lifesavers called Fire on the Beach. It was an incredible rescue by one of the best Lifesaving stations on the East Coast. 

Initially, the crews of many Lifesavers stations were made up of both black and white members. But the Life-Saving Service was founded in 1872—seven years after the Civil War ended. “Racial ideas and cultural values made it hard for crewmembers that were white and black to serve side-by-side,” says William Thiesen, a historian for the Coast Guard, which the Lifesavers became part of in 1915.

White crewmen wouldn’t serve under a black keeper, and black crewmen were slowly being chased out of service. “As a result, the Life-Saving Service came up with the idea of an all-black crew,” says Thiesen.  

Lifesaving stations had both black and white members originally. But the Life-Saving Service was founded in 1872. That was seven years after the Civil War ended. Ideas about race “made it hard for crewmembers that were white and black to serve side-by-side," says William Thiesen. He’s a historian for the Coast Guard. (The Lifesavers became part of the Coast Guard in 1915.)

White crewmen wouldn’t serve under a black keeper. And black crewmen were slowly being chased out of service. "As a result, the Life-Saving Service came up with the idea of an all-black crew," says Thiesen.  

JUS Coast Guard

In 1879, Pea Island became the first all-black crew and remained all-black until it was decommissioned in 1947. However, decades passed before its service was recognized. In 1996, the Pea Island Lifesavers were awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal for the rescue of the Newman crew. Today, the Pea Island Cookhouse Museum in Manteo, North Carolina, keeps the Lifesavers’ story alive right on the shores where they served.

As Wright worked on his book, what impressed him the most about the Pea Island Lifesavers was that they chose to serve at all. “Many had been born slaves and fought in the Civil War,” he says. “The notion of service and pride in their identity as Americans is remarkable.”

Pea Island became the first all-black crew in 1879. Pea Island remained the only all-black station until it was closed in 1947. But decades passed before its service was recognized. In 1996, the Pea Island Lifesavers were awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal for the rescue of the Newman crew. Today, the Lifesavers’ story is kept alive at the Pea Island Cookhouse Museum in Manteo, North Carolina. The museum is on the same coast where they served.

Wright learned a lot about the Pea Island Lifesavers while working on his book. But what impressed him the most was that they chose to serve at all. "Many had been born slaves and fought in the Civil War," he says. "The notion of service and pride in their identity as Americans is remarkable."

Use the information in the chart below to make a dot plot of when rescues occurred in Pea Island’s district from June 1896 to May 1897. Round all answers to the nearest whole number. Record your work and answers on our answer sheet.

Use the information in the chart below to make a dot plot of when rescues occurred in Pea Island’s district from June 1896 to May 1897. Round all answers to the nearest whole number. Record your work and answers on our answer sheet.

What value or category should be used for a dot plot representing the data?

What value or category should be used for a dot plot representing the data?

How many total dots will the dot plot have?

How many total dots will the dot plot have?

On a separate sheet of paper, make a dot plot of rescues by month, using the data in the table below.

On a separate sheet of paper, make a dot plot of rescues by month, using the data in the table below.

How can you tell which month had the most rescues?

How can you tell which month had the most rescues?

Until 1900, East Coast lifesaving stations had a full crew only during the “active season,” from April to November.  Based on your dot plot, why do you think they switched to full crews year-round?

Until 1900, East Coast lifesaving stations had a full crew only during the “active season,” from April to November.  Based on your dot plot, why do you think they switched to full crews year-round?

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