Special to South Florida Times
FORT LAUDERDALE —The U.S. Coast Guard delved into history Friday to honor a heroic pioneer member of the service by naming a cutter after him.
Etheridge, who was born into slavery on Roanoke Island in 1842, captained Pea Island Life-Saving Station No. 17 on the North Carolina coast, the first African American to hold the position.
In 1863, during the Civil War, Etheridge enlisted in the Union Army to buy his freedom. After three years of service, he returned to Roanoke to learn the ways of a shipman. He joined the surfmen, then became an enlisted member of the Coast Guard, in 1874, and was assigned to what was called a checkerboard or black-and-white crew on Bodie Island on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
By 1880, Etheridge was promoted to Keeper of the Pea Island station. Whites who served at the station walked off the day he arrived, according to David Wright, co-writer and producer of the film Rescue Men which documents the history of the Pea Island
station while under Etheridge’s leadership. Pea Island then became the only black station at that time, Wright said.
Soon afterwards, the station was burned to the ground. Etheridge continued to push his men to train hard and not give in to the setback.
“From the beginning, those men were respected as surfmen but there was a resistance to having, on the one hand, black men getting jobs when the jobs were limited, and also the resistance to an all-black crew,” Wright said. “That’s why we believe the station was burned down.”
Etheridge died in 1900 after a brief illness. In 1966, he and his crew at Pea Island were honored with the Gold Life-Saving Medal for the E.S. Newman schooner rescue. The ship had been caught in a storm off the East Coast and was blown 100 miles off course.
The Life-Saving Service joined with the Coast Guard in 1915, making all Life-Saving stations Coast Guard stations.
Etheridge’s proficiencies were recognized despite his race, Coast Guard Admiral Robert J. Papp Jr. said. “As an African-American post-Civil War, he certainly faced conflict. He developed meticulous life-saving drills and that’s leadership that the Coast Guard relies on today,” Papp said.
Etheridge was more than the first black Life Saving Station keeper, Papp said. “He was a professional that, through today, we remember.”
Shirley Rochon, sponsor of the USCGC Richard Etheridge, said that Etheridge did not allow the shackles of slavery to bind him.
In researching his book and documentary, Wright said that he found “countless of incidences, from the very beginning, where there would be crews working together and a (large patrol vessel) would arrive first and Richard Etheridge was in command.
“In those cases, we never found any evidence that there was any problem with Etheridge commanding white men.”
The reason for the delay in naming the cutter for Etheridge was not racist so much as not wanting to drudge up bad history, according to Wright. The Coast Guard is very proud of being very integrated, he said.
“Etheridge and his crew at Pea Island were honored with medals and the Coast Guard Cutter Pea Island was named for the crew afterwards,” Wright said.
“There had been a lot of ceremonies; even North Carolina began embracing this history when they clearly had not been interested for a long time.”
George Burrows of Fort Lauderdale, who attended the event, said that he was “proud to know that our part in this country’s history is continuing to be honored. I learned a lot about Etheridge today. And the ship being in Fort Lauderdale should open doors to a learning experience for the youth.”
“Military heritage is woven into the fabric of this city,” Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler said during the ceremony. “When Richard Etheridge joined the Coast Guard, he shared his gifts and talents. His efforts exemplify our diverse military.”
Cynthia Roby may be reached at CynthiaRoby@bellsouth.net
Photo: Richard Etheridge