As the debate around the Confederate Flag rages across Southern states in America, the little-known tale of an anti-slavery and anti-Confederacy rebellion led by a white man is coming to light. Newton Knight, a farmer and former soldier, led a group of fighters in an attempt to secede from the Confederacy and went on to form the first mixed-race community in Mississippi.
Born in November 1837, Knight was a grandchild of one of the largest slave-owners in Jones County, Miss., though Knight’s father and Knight never owned slaves, which some historians say may have been due to the farmer’s Primitive Baptist church upbringing.
Knight, much like many others in Jones County, didn’t support the Confederacy and its desire to secede from the Union during The Civil War. Knight did enlisted willingly into the Confederate Army although he would have been drafted anyway in 1861. According to accounts, Knight did this to avoid the death penalty should he have openly refused to fight.
The Confederate government passed what was known as the “Twenty Negro Law,” which meant farmers who owned more than 20 slaves could avoid the draft. Knight and other Jones County farmers saw this, coupled with high taxes as an attack on poor farmers. In protest, Knight gathered his so-called “Knight Company” to defend Jones County farmers from the Confederacy in 1863.
The Knight Company numbered 125 aided by Black and White locals, including a slave named Rachel. The group branded themselves “Southern Yankees” and caught the attention of the Confederate Government. Despite their smaller numbers, the Knight Company held the larger Confederate forces at bay and flew the United States flag as a symbol of their rebellion.
The Civil War ended in 1865. Although historical accounts conflict, it was said that Knight was hoping to establish what has been deemed the “Free State of Jones” within Mississippi. During Reconstruction between 1867 and 1875, Mississippi, former slaves and free Blacks were given greater opportunities and even elected to public office. In 1875 however, the promise of peaceful coexistence was upended by the Ku Klux Klan and other segregationists leading to to the Jim Crow era.
Knight, was forced to retreat to his farm in the county with Rachel, one of his grandfather’s former slaves. After his wife, Serena, left him he and Rachel married and had several children. Though interracial marriage was outlawed in Mississippi at the time, Knight helped establish the first mixed-race community in the state.