Fire on the Beach: Recovering the Lost Story of Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers

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Fire on the Beach recovers the heroic, long-forgotten story of the only all-black crew in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard. In 1871 the Life-Saving Service, the precursor to the Coast Guard, was created by Congress to assure the safe passage of American and international shipping and to save lives and salvage cargo. Although it was decommissioned in 1915, a century ago the LSS boasted some two hundred stations, and the adventures of the now forgotten "surfmen" filled the pages of popular reading, from Harper's to the Baltimore Sun to the New York Herald.

This book tells the story of Station 17 of Pea Island, North Carolina, and its courageous captain, Richard Etheridge. A former slave and Civil War veteran, Etheridge was appointed Keeper of the Pea Island station, but when the white crew already in place refused to serve under him, he recruited and trained an entirely black crew. Although they were among the most courageous in the service, leading many daring rescues and saving scores of men, women, and children along the treacherous stretch of coast known as "the Graveyard of the Atlantic," civilian attitudes toward the Pea Island surfmen ranged from curiosity to outrage. When a hurricane hit the Banks in the late 1890s, they managed to save everyone aboard the wrecked E.S. Newman. This incredible feat went unrecognized for a century until, in 1996, the Coast Guard posthumously awarded Etheridge and his men the Gold Life-Saving Medal.

This courageous story of a group of men who battled prejudice as well as fierce storms to carry out heroic deeds illustrates yet another example of the contribution of one group of remarkable African Americans to this country's history.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The riveting, previously untold story of the extraordinary heroism of former slaves and freedmen who became lifesavers on the Outer Banks of North Carolina... battling prejudice as well as the great storms that made these barrier islands 'The Graveyard of the Atlantic.'"—St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Best Books of 2001

"Far more than the story of heroic surfmen....A rich social history of 19th century race relations mirrored in the life of a remarkable African American....A compelling read about heroes and scoundrels, seafarers and soldiers...and prejudice towards those who strove to prove themselves equals."—The Virginian-Pilot

"Explore[s] not only the life-saving record of the Pea Island crew, but also the discrimination that burdened the crew members' lives and the social history of those times."—The Richmond Times-Dispatch

"Adds significantly to our understanding of the many essential ways in which African-Americans have served their country."—The Washington Post Book World

"Reads more like a novel than a work of history."—The News and Observer

"Readers who enjoy true-life adventures like Isaac's Storm should find it enthralling."—Wilmington Star-News

"Social history at its readable best."—The Memphis Flyer

Library Journal
This true-life story is akin to Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm (LJ 5/15/97), except that the storm here is on shore as well. The story roils with the terrifying racism of slavery's aftermath, as Wright (English, Univ. of Illinois) and Zoby (Caspar Coll.) indicate in this story of the life and times of Richard Etheridge (1842-1900). Born a slave, Etheridge served in the U.S. Colored Troops in the Civil War and in 1880 became captain of Station 17 and the only black man to lead a crew in the U.S. Life-Saving Service (LSS), the forerunner of the Coast Guard. Based at Pea Island, NC, Etheridge and his all-black crew braved the terrors of post-Reconstruction white supremacy and segregation to do rescue duty that, not until 1996, 100 years after the fact, brought them a Gold Life-Saving Medal, the Coast Guard's highest peacetime honor. More than one man's story, this mix of personal and institutional biography brings to life the daily challenges and triumphs of blacks pushed aside, but no less valuable, in a New South. For collections on maritime, local, and African American history. Thomas J. Davis, Arizona State Univ., Tempe Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A jumbled and speculative—but also affecting—biography of the leader of the only all-black unit of the US Life-Saving Service, stationed at Pea Island, North Carolina, in the final decades of the 19th century. Wright (English/Univ. of Illinois) and Zoby (English/Caspar Coll.) faced a daunting task—to chart the life of Etheridge, born a slave on January 16, 1842. As the authors note, the documentary record for slaves is slender even in the best of circumstances, and so they were forced to paint much historical background and give Etheridge's story a colorful context, if not a sharp focus. And so they provide 100 pages of Civil War history, chronicling the exploits of Etheridge's "African Brigade" (he enlisted in August 1863) but not of Etheridge himself, for his personal experiences are largely unknown. At times this material (published elsewhere in much detail) is superfluous. Once the war ends, however, and Etheridge returns to the Outer Banks, the authors are on firmer historical ground. The characteristic stormy weather in the region caused many shipwrecks, so between 1873 and 1874 the federal government established stations for the Life-Saving Service (or LSS—the agency that would one day be replaced by the Coast Guard). Etheridge, who had distinguished himself as an LSS surfman, earned an appointment as keeper of Station 17 in 1880. The whites on the crew promptly quit, so (with approval from his superiors) he appointed an all-black crew that became exemplary—largely due to Etheridge's devotion to duty, his strict schedule of drills, and the enormous respect he enjoyed along the coast. Wright and Zoby are at their best when narrating some the excitingrescues—the one in the prologue is a gem of adventure-writing. But the story lacks a compelling organization, and the narrative occasionally drifts like flotsam. And the lack of end- or footnotes will retard subsequent scholarship. At times clumsy, but nonetheless an important story of perseverance in the face of natural disasters and unspeakable racism.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195154849
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 8/28/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 423,810
  • Product dimensions: 9.10 (w) x 6.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

David Wright is Assistant Professor of English and African American Studies at the University of Illinois. The recipient of the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Award, he has written for The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review, and the African American Review.

David Zoby teaches at Casper College in Wyoming. His work has appeared in The Southern Poetry Review, the Georgia State Review, and elsewhere.

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Table of Contents

Prologue 13
Pt. 1 Richard Etheridge - "A Man Among the Men"
1 Youth: The Outer Banks 43
2 War 48
3 Wild's December Raid 65
4 Point Lookout: The Bottom Rail on Top 78
5 Before Richmond: In the Trenches 89
6 Armistice: Texas 111
7 Home 121
Pt. 2 "National Calamity" or "National Crime"? - The Life-Saving Service Founders in North Carolina
8 The Life-Saving Service in North Carolina 135
9 North Carolina's Lifesaving Woes 141
10 The Reformation of the Sixth District 160
11 Segregation for the Good of "Progress" 167
12 Fire on the Beach 185
Pt. 3 The Life of a Surfman
13 The Portrait of a Surfman 207
14 Life at the Station 214
15 Patrolling the Beach 224
16 No. 17 235
17 Pressures Particular to Pea Island Surfmen 248
18 The Right Men in the Right Place 265
19 Their Finest Hour: The Wreck of the E. S. Newman, October 11, 1896 272
Epilogue 295
Acknowledgments 301
Authors' Notes and Sources 303
Bibliography 311
Index 321
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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 22, 2003

    A gripping tale of courage and bravery

    Faced with several days of enforced inactivity as Hurrican Isabel bore down upon Baltimore, what I needed was a good book with which to pass the hours. There on my shelf was Fire on the Beach, purchased several months ago but set aside for just such a circumstance. As the wind howled around my apartment and rain slashed at my windows, I settled in to read. Authors Wright and Zoby have written a thrilling account about the American Life Saving Service (ALSS), predecessor to the U. S. Coast Guard. Their focus is on the life of Richard Etheridge, born into slavery, a soldier in the Union Army during the Civil War, and later, leader of a courageous crew of lifesaves at Pea Island's Station 17 on the Outer Banks. Etheridge, probably the son of a white 'Banker,' raised and educated as part of his family, obtained his freedom fighting with the North Carolina Colored Volunteers (NCCV) under infamous Colonel Edward A. Wild. After the war, the scandel-ridden ALSS was reorganized and Etheridge was appointed Keeper of the station at Pea Island; the only black man to command a station up to that point. Etheridge was, indeed, a 'man among men,' risking his life time and again, driving his 6-member crew of surfmen to rescue sailors and passengers off unfortunate ships driven ashore by storms at least as furious as the one threatening Maryland this day. Here is a tale of daring exploits during an obscure time in American history; of courageous men of color fighting steep breakers and raging surf over shallow shoals while saving stranded survivors of doomed vessels before a deadly sea could claim them. A fascinating account. Some might say it's black history. But it's more than that. It's about raw courage; about bravery against a treacherous enemy - the sea at its worst. Etheridge and his crew were black, but first and foremost, they were real men who willingly risked their lives daily for others. I heartily recommend this work as an eye-opening account of a time along the Outer Banks before storms were tracked with high-tech equipment, and as a gripping tale guaranteed to hold your interest.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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