Martha Wheeler, Eye-Witness to the “Free State of Jones”

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, Mississippi, Slavery, United States on 2022-02-14 01:25Z by Steven

Martha Wheeler, Eye-Witness to the “Free State of Jones”

Renegade South: Histories of Unconventional Southerners

Vikki Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History
Texas State University, San Marcos

Matthew McConaughey and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Newt and Rachel, “The Free State of Jones,” STX Entertainment (2016)

I’ll never forget the excitement I felt when, in the midst of researching The Free State of Jones, I came upon the WPA’s 1936 interview with Martha Wheeler, a former slave of Laurel, Mississippi. Today, I realize more than ever that Martha just may be the best source for verifiable remarks about Newt, Rachel, and Serena Knight, and the interracial community they built in Soso, Mississippi, in the aftermath of the Civil War.1

Unfortunately, no Hollywood movie could have provided an in-depth treatment of both a Civil War insurrection and the remarkable mixed-race community that followed. Only a fraction of Rachel’s factual personal life was told amid the larger story of slavery, Civil War, and class resistance to Confederate authority.

Nevertheless, judging from the traffic on this blog since release of The Free State of Jones, the movie’s abbreviated portrait of the interracial Knight community piqued tremendous interest among movie audiences. Tantalizing glimpses of the 1948 miscegenation trial of Newt and Rachel’s great-grandson, Davis Knight, as well as images of Newt’s two “wives,”—one white (Serena), the other a woman of color (Rachel)—in scenes of domestic contentment in post-Civil War Mississippi sparked that interest even more…

Read the entire article here.

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