Early African-American Service: First to Serve, First to Sacrifice

The original Pea Island Life-Saving Station crew; keeper Richard Etheridge is on the left side (USCG)

Published Dec 6, 2019 3:22 PM by William Thiesen

African Americans comprise the longest serving minority in the United States Coast Guard. They were the first to serve and, in many ways, were the first to sacrifice, pioneering the way ahead for all minorities in the Coast Guard, U.S. military, and the nation.

In the 1790s and early 1800s, the Coast Guard’s ancestor services of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service and U.S. Lighthouse Service reflected American society. Thus, early African-American participation in the Service was a complex mixture of slaves and freedmen. In 1795, the first cutterman known to die in the line of duty drowned off the Charleston-based cutter South Carolina. He was African American, but the circumstances surrounding his death remain a mystery.

Due to the law enforcement mission of the Revenue Cutter Service, the Treasury Department restricted the use of slaves on board cutters. A few served as seamen on Southern cutters, but most often, they served as officer’s stewards. Federal law required all cutter crewmembers to detect fraud, impound or detain merchantmen not complying with tariff laws, and enforce customs duties. Furthermore, all cuttermen were required to give legal testimony under oath, bear witness in maritime adjudication cases and, at times, use lethal force. As non-citizens, the Treasury Department deemed slaves unsuited to perform these duties.

By the early 1800s, the Treasury Department restricted hiring blacks of any kind for the Revenue Cutter Service. Not only did the Treasury Department curb the use of slaves, it also restricted the hiring of free blacks. In 1830, the Department issued specific instructions prohibiting the employment of blacks unless by special permission from the Treasury Secretary.

On November 1, 1843, the Service issued a regulation prohibiting slaves “from ever being entered for the Service, or to form a complement of any vessel of the Revenue Marine of the United States.” This regulation pre-dated by 20 years the complete abolition of slavery within the United States. However, the Revenue Cutter Service only allowed blacks to serve in non-authority enlisted positions, such as cook, steward and boy (the 19th-century enlisted rate of an unskilled boy or teenager).

The Cape Florida Lighthouse, the first U.S. installation overseen by a minority woman (U.S. Coast Guard)

During the early 1800s, the U.S. Lighthouse Service employed slaves and free men of color on a limited basis. In fact, likely the first lighthouse staff member killed in combat was African-American Aaron Carter. In 1836, he died defending the Cape Florida Lighthouse from an attack by Seminole Indians during Florida’s Seminole Wars. Records indicate that Carter was probably a free man of color.

From the 1790s up to the Civil War, the Lighthouse Service disapproved the use of slaves as lighthouse staff. However, enforcement proved difficult with remotely located lighthouses, especially those located in the South. For example, in 1826, the customs collector at Key West warned the Treasury Department that the keeper of Cape Florida Light lived miles away from the lighthouse and gave “whole direction of the light to a black woman.” While not an official member of the Service, this un-named African-American woman was the first known case of a minority female overseeing a Federal installation. In 1830, the Treasury Department dismissed the keeper at Cape Hatteras Light for using slaves to operate the lighthouse. In 1836, an elderly African-American woman assisted the keeper at St. Simon’s Island Light in Georgia. As late as 1852, the keeper of Point Comfort Light, in Virginia, also had a female slave assistant.

Lighthouse Service keepers responsible for lightships could hire blacks to serve as cooks, but the keepers required special permission from the Treasury Department similar to the blacks hired onto revenue cutters. Joseph Ximenez, of Key West, keeper of the Carysfort Reef Lightship, was fired for the offense of employing two slaves to oversee the lightship. In his letter of dismissal, the Department stated that using one slave was sanctioned, but two slaves were considered an infraction of Treasury Department regulations. In the years before the Civil War, keepers of some Southern lightships left African-American teenage boys to singlehandedly oversee their lightships. These boys were the youngest individuals in U.S. history to oversee a federal asset of any kind.

The American political era known as Reconstruction began in the aftermath of the Civil War. During Reconstruction, African Americans began to receive official Lighthouse Service appointments as keepers at lights on the Chesapeake Bay and Southeast U.S. For example, in 1870, the Lighthouse Service appointed its first African-American lighthouse keeper, Robert Darnell, at the Lower Cedar Point Lighthouse in Maryland. All-black staffs manned some Chesapeake lights in the 1880s and one African-American woman served as an assistant keeper during this period.

Many African Americans living along the Southern coasts were known to be highly skilled watermen. Therefore, when Congress established the United States Lifesaving Service in the 1870s, the Service assembled “checkerboard” crews with black and white crewmembers. During an 1876 rescue on the Outer Banks, African American Jeremiah Munden lost his life, becoming one of the Coast Guard’s first surfmen to die in the line of duty. And, in 1880, the Lifesaving Service appointed African American Richard Etheridge to command the Pea Island Lifesaving Station. Etheridge supervised an all-black crew and became the first African American Officer-in-Charge of a Coast Guard installation.

One hundred years after Pea Island’s 1896 rescue of the schooner E.S. Newman, the Coast Guard honored the Pea Island men with the Gold Lifesaving Medal. Though retroactive from 1996, this recue became the first in which the Coast Guard honored minority servicemembers for heroism.

Today, treatment of all members of the Coast Guard, regardless of gender or ethnic background, aligns with the core values of “honor, respect and devotion to duty.” Moreover, the Service recognizes not only the achievements, but also the sacrifices of hundreds of thousands of African American service members during the course of the Service’s 230-year history. These men and women of the long blue line have strived for equal rights and persevered with a dedication that has benefited all who serve in the United States Coast Guard.

William Thiesen is the U.S. Coast Guard Atlantic Area historian. This article appears courtesy of Coast Guard Compass, and it may be found in its original form here

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.