Knight, Martha Ann

Biography

photo of  Martha Ann Knight

Martha Ann Knight was the daughter of Rachel Knight, a previously enslaved woman, and Newton Knight, a white farmer.[1] Though Rachel and Newton’s story has attracted attention from both historians and Hollywood, less is known about Martha Ann’s life.[2] Following other members of her mixed-race extended family, Martha Ann joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a young woman. In later years, she and her husband gained some economic independence for their family as farmers, despite the strictures imposed by the Jim Crow South. 

Rachel and Newton began their relationship during the Civil War, while Rachel was still enslaved to Jesse Davis Knight, an uncle of Newt’s.[3] Despite working on a ‘loyal’ Confederate plantation, Rachel aided ‘the Jones County Scouts.’ Lead by Newton Knight, the Scouts were an informal band of Confederate deserters who harassed Confederate supply lines during the last years of the war. Rachel became Newton’s “most reliable ally,” supplying food and information to the Scouts; eventually, their working relationship developed romantically.[4] After the war, Rachel moved with her children to Newton Knight’s property to work as a sharecropper. Martha Ann, born August 15, 1865, was their first child together.[5]

On his land, Newton Knight continued to father children with both his white wife, Serena, and Martha Ann’s mother Rachel. According to family tradition, the ‘black’ and ‘white’ sides of the family lived alongside each other in relative harmony.[6] Martha Ann would have grown up working hard in this small, interracial community, cultivating cotton as well as subsistence crops. However, on Sundays, the Knights held dances, spelling bees, and otherwise found the time for some enjoyment alongside their hardscrabble farming.[7]

The mixed-race community that developed among the Knight homesteads did not extend into the surrounding counties. Martha Ann and her siblings attempted to attend the local school alongside Newton’s white children. Descendants recall how the teacher flatly refused to instruct the children, saying, “Go home and tell your mother the school doesn’t accept Negroes.”[8] Martha Wheeler, who was enslaved on Jackie Knight’s plantation and continued to live around Jones County after emancipation, corroborates this story with her own recollection: Newton Knight “undertook to send several of his negro children to a white school he had been instrumental in building,” she recalled.[9] Knight’s outrage over his children’s dismissal resulted in a “complete break with the whites.”[10] A day later, the school “mysteriously burned to the ground.” Newton and Rachel were each rumored to be the culprit, however there is no evidence to prove such claims.[11] In lieu of formal schooling, Martha Ann and her siblings learned to read and write from the school materials brought home by her white relatives.[12]

In 1881, missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began preaching in the Jones and Jasper County areas.[13] Their message first attracted Martha Ann’s mother Rachel and half-sister Fannie (daughter of Jesse Davis Knight); both Rachel and Fannie converted in 1881. Within a year, Martha Ann followed their lead. Elder Samuel D. Moore, a missionary from Payson, Utah, baptized Martha Ann on August 1, 1882.[14] Elder John B. Fairbanks, also from Payson, confirmed her that same day. She was just shy of her seventeenth birthday at the time. Her younger half-brother, John Stewart Knight, was baptized over a decade later.[15]

Word of the Knight family’s conversions rippled through the community. In 1883, the Natchez, Mississippi Weekly Democrat reported that though the recently organized congregation was “a small one” Newt Knight, his son, and their families “are among the members.”[16] While this and other newspaper accounts suggested that Newt also converted, no baptismal record has been found for him.[17]

LDS membership records further indicate that Martha Ann, Rachel, and Francis moved to Colorado on November 13, 1884, though records of their arrival in Colorado have not yet been found.[18] Apart from these documents, it is difficult to know the degree of involvement or influence that affiliation with the LDS Church exercised over Martha Ann, however her brother’s conversion in 1894 suggests an ongoing connection to the faith among some family members.

Around 1890, Marth Ann married Samuel ‘Sam’ Knight.[19] Samuel was the son of Harriet Carter, a formerly enslaved woman.[20] Descendants believe Sam Knight to be the son of Daniel Thomas Knight, a relative of Newton’s.[21] Sam and Martha Ann had four children together: Sidney (1891), Senia (1892), Amos (1894), and Viola (1896).[22]

In 1897, Martha Ann and Sam acquired a 41-acre homestead in the northwest quadrant of Jones County, near the border with Jasper County.[23] Though their farm was about half the size of the average Mississippi farm (82.6 acres in 1900), Martha Ann and Sam were unique as landowners. Only 10% of all farmed acres in Mississippi were owned and operated (rather than maintained through managers and tenants) by African Americans in 1900.[24]

Beyond census records, little written documentation remains on the final three decades of Martha Ann’s life. Though classified as ‘mulatto’ throughout her life, by 1920, census takers recorded Martha Ann and her family as simply ‘black,’ demonstrating an increasing racial bifurcation in southern society.[25] According to her headstone, she died July 5, 1933 and is buried in the Mount Pleasant and Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) Cemetery in Soso, Jones County Mississippi.[26] It is possible that Martha Ann converted to the Seventh Day Adventists by the time she passed away but the circumstantial evidence of her burial is the only indication. It is difficult to know how her faith may have changed between her LDS baptism and her ultimate burial in an Adventist-affiliated cemetery, but if she did join the Adventists, the transition may have been motivated by Anna Knight, a close relative and noted Adventist missionary and educator who worked extensively in the Jones County area.[27] Regardless of Martha Ann’s particular faith, her possible movement between these religious traditions underscores the power of familial relationships in shaping her life.

By Keely Mruk

With research assistance from Eden Christensen

Primary Sources

Bureau of Land Management. Sam Knight (Jones Co., Mississippi) homestead patent no. 12377.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Record of Members Collection, Mississippi (State), Part 1. CR 375 8, box 4255, folder 1, images 211 - 214. Church History Library. Salt Lake City, Utah.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Record of Members Collection, Mississippi (State), Part 2. CR 375 8, box 4256, folder 1, images 23 - 24, 102. Church History Library. Salt Lake City, Utah.

“Jones.” The Natchez Weekly Democrat (Natchez, Mississippi). June 8, 1881, 2.

“Meridian Mercury.” The Natchez Weekly Democrat (Natchez, Mississippi). August 1, 1883, 1.

United States. 1860 Census, Slave Schedules, Mississippi, Covington County. Entry for Daniel Knight.

United States. 1870 Census. Mississippi, Jasper County, South West Beat.

United States. 1870 Census. Mississippi, Jones County, Township Nine.

United States. 1880 Census, Mississippi, Jasper County, District Three.

United States. 1900 Census, Mississippi, Jones County, Beat Two.

United States. 1910 Census, Mississippi, Jones County, Beat Two.

United States. 1920 Census, Mississippi, Jones County, Beat Two.

United States. 1930 Census, Mississippi, Jones County, Beat Two.

United States Department of Agriculture. 1910 Census, Volume 6: Reports by States, Part 1. Reports by states with statistics or counties Mississippi – Montana.

Wheeler, Martha interview by Addie West, Typist Vivian Andrews. Supplement Series 1, vol. 10, Mississippi Narratives, Part 5, p. 2262 – 2271. George P. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972).

Secondary Sources

Bivins, Sondra Yvonne. “Part 2: Yvonne Bivins on the History of Rachel Knight,” Renegade South, September 11, 2009.

Bivins, Sondra Yvonne. “Part 3: Yvonne Bivins on the History of Rachel Knight,” Renegade South, September 15, 2009.

Bynum, Victoria. The Free State of Jones. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Bynum, Victoria E. "‘White Negroes’ in Segregated Mississippi: Miscegenation, Racial Identity, and the Law." The Journal of Southern History 64, no. 2 (1998): 247-76. doi:10.2307/2587946.

Jenkins, Sally and John Stauffer. The State of Jones. New York: Anchor Books, 2009.

Knight, Martha Ann. Findagrave.com.


[1] Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Mississippi (State), Part 2, CR 375 8, box 4256, folder 1, images 23-24, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah. Martha Ann’s birth date is taken from Church baptismal records; however, census records report her birth year from 1865 (in the 1880 Census) to 1874 (in the 1900 Census).

[2]See Victoria Bynum, The Free State of Jones, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001); and Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, The State of Jones, (New York: Anchor Books, 2009). Gary Ross directed The Free State of Jones, released in 2016.

[3] Jenkins and Stauffer, The State of Jones,n70, 86 - 87. Rachel had previously been owned by Jesse Davis Knight’s father, John ‘Jackie’ Knight. When Jackie died in 1861, he willed her to Jesse. Two of her children – Jeffrey Early (born 1860) and Francis (born 1864) – are believed to have been fathered by Jesse Davis Knight.

[4] Jenkins and Stauffer, The State of Jones, 147.

[5] Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Mississippi (State), Part 2, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah. CR 375 8, images 23 - 24. Jenkins and Stauffer speculate that Martha Ann was named after Newton’s younger sister; she had already likewise named a child for him. Like Rachel, Martha Ann (Newton’s sister) aided him and the other Jones County Scouts with information and supplies. Word circulated that Martha Ann’s husband – a man simply referred to as ‘Morgan’ - violently abused her and their children. An unknown assailant shot Morgan through an open window, killing him in his own home. Suspicion naturally fell on Newton, however there was no evidence to convict him. Martha Ann shortly remarried, naming her first child with her new husband Newton. See Jenkins and Stauffer, The State of Jones, 81 – 83.

[6] Jenkins and Stauffer, The State of Jones, 283.

[7] Jenkins and Stauffer, The State of Jones, 284.

[8] Jenkins and Stauffer, The State of Jones, 259.

[9] Martha Wheeler, interview by Addie West, ed. George P. Rawick, The American Slave, Supplement Series 1, vol. 10, Mississippi Narratives, Part 5, 2269.

[10] Martha Wheeler, The American Slave, Supplement Series 1, vol. 10, Mississippi Narratives, Part 5, 2269.

[11] Victoria Bynum, "‘White Negroes’ in Segregated Mississippi: Miscegenation, Racial Identity, and the Law," The Journal of Southern History 64, no. 2 (1998): 262.

[12] Jenkins and Stauffer, The State of Jones, 284. From 1880 onward, every census record indicates that Martha Ann could both read and write.

[13] The Natchez Weekly Democrat (Natchez, Mississippi) reprinted from the Ellisville Eagle (Ellisville, Mississippi), June 8, 1881, 2. Local response to the LDS Church was initially frosty, with this newspaper further reporting that it was a “shame that our people will countenance their system of foul licentiousness and abominable doctrine of polygamy, which strikes at the very foundation of our Christian civilization and sanctity of religion.”

[14] Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Mississippi (State), Part 2, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah. CR 375 8, images 23 - 24. 

[15] Record of Members Collection, Mississippi (State), Part 2, CR 375 8, box 4256, folder 1, image 102.

[16] “Meridian Mercury,” The Natchez Weekly Democrat (Natchez, Mississippi) reprinted from the Meridian Mercury, (Meridian, Mississippi), August 1, 1883.

[17] “Meridian Mercury,” The Natchez Weekly Democrat, (Natchez, Mississippi) reprinted from the Meridian Mercury, (Meridian, Mississippi), August 1, 1883, offers one example of Newton’s reported conversion. While he did not convert, a few of his children by Serena and members of his extended family did convert. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Mississippi (State), Part 1, CR 375 8, box 4255, folder 1, images 207-219, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah. 

[18] For the move to Colorado, see Record of Members Collection, Mississippi (State), Part 2, CR 375 8, box 4256, folder 1, image 24. Kenneth Welch, another Knight historian, contends that the Knight women may have actually moved to Utah, however shortly moved back to Mississippi after finding the climate “too cold.” Sondra Yvonne Bivins, “Part 2: Yvonne Bivins on the History of Rachel Knight,” Renegade South, September 11, 2009.

[19] The 1910 Census records that Martha Ann and Samuel had been married for twenty years, with Samuel being 22 and Martha Ann 23 when they first married. United States, 1910 Census, Mississippi, Jones County, Beat Two.

[20] United States, 1870 Census, Mississippi, Jones County, Township Nine.

[21] Sondra Yvonne Bivins, “Part 3: Yvonne Bivins on the History of Rachel Knight,” Renegade South, September 15, 2009. The 1860 Slave Schedules show that Daniel Knight owned several slaves, including one 23 year old woman who may have been Harriet. United States, 1860 Census, Slave Schedules, Mississippi, Covington and Jones Counties, Entry for Daniel Knight.

[22] United States, 1910 Census, Mississippi, Jones County, Beat Two. A William Knight, aged 17, was also recorded as living with Martha Ann and Sam in 1930. Though he is listed as a son, since William does not appear in earlier records, it seems more likely that he is a grandson or nephew.

[23] Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office Record entry for Sam Knight (Jones Co., Mi.), homestead patent no. 12377. United States, 1900 Census, Mississippi, Jones County, Beat Two.

[24] United States Department of Agriculture. 1910 Census, Volume 6: Reports by States, Part 1. Reports by states with statistics or counties Mississippi – Montana, 852.

[25] United States, 1920 Census, Mississippi, Jones County, Beat Two. In a society where racial identity was constructed through a complex interaction of family lineage, physical appearance, and class, Sam and Martha Ann’s status as landholders may have forestalled their ‘reclassification’ as black. In contrast, her half-sister Fannie was recorded as ‘mulatto’ until the 1900 Census, when she too was reclassified as black. Fannie had been abandoned by her white husband in 1895.

[26] Martha Ann Knight, Findagrave.com. Sam Knight died in 1957 and was buried next to Martha Ann.

[27] Rachel “Anna” Knight, Encyclopedia of Seventh Day Adventists. Anna Knight worked as an SDA missionary both domestically in the American South and internationally, in India. She founded a missionary school in Jones County in 1898 and taught there before going abroad. The school burned down in 1903, but she rebuilt it upon returning to the United States in 1907. Barred from other schools in the area, many Knights were educated at the schools Anna Knight founded. 

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