Pea Island Life-Saving Station was located on the Outer Banks in North Carolina. It was the first life-saving station in the country to have an all-#black crew, and it was the first in the nation to have a black man, Richard Etheridge, as the commanding officer. Richard Etheridge was born into #slavery on January 16, 1842, and was the property of John B. Etheridge on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. On the Outer Banks slavery was limited and there were no plantations. Most slave men who lived on the banks learned to work the sea, fish, and pilot boats, Etheridge was one of those slaves. Even though it was illegal to teach slaves to read, master Etheridge taught Richard how to read.
After the fighting between the states began in 1842, the Outer Banks became the site for Northern invasions. General Ambrose Burnside, the Union commander, needed Black labor men to build fortifications for his armies. The island was also a safe refugee camp for fugitive slaves. The union was not blind to the fact that they needed Southern black forces to add to their forces, not only by bolstering the Union ranks but by simultaneously diminishing the opposition’s labor supply.
Black troops were enlisted by the summer of 1863; Richard Etheridge joined on August 28 of that year. Etheridge spent much of his first year of active duty like most of the other black units in the Union Army but playing secondary roles. After limited anti-guerilla actions in North Carolina, the soldiers of the 36th served as guards at the prisoner-of-war camp at Point Lookout, Maryland, occasionally raiding into neighboring Virginia for goods: such as horses, tools, supplies, cattle and slaves.
Etheridge was also active in the struggle behind Union lines to end the mistreatment of Blacks. He drafted a letter to General Oliver O. Howard, the Commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau about the mistreatment of blacks on Roanoke Island. The abuse against the Black soldiers were made right. At the War’s close, Etheridge, now a Regimental Commissary Sergeant, and the black troops of the Army of the James were regrouped into the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry and sent to Texas. These units would become known as the “Buffalo Soldiers.”
Etheridge left the service and returned home on the Outer Banks. He married and became a fisherman while serving in the newly formed Life-Saving Service. Since Etheridge was the first Black to be commander, under the racial standards of the times, the crew who worked under his command had to be black. Although other black men served as surfmen at Pea Island and other stations, the station was operated by an entirely black keeper and crew. Etheridge and his all-black crew had to deal with discrimination, and their station was burned to the ground right from the beginning. But, the crew did not let that stop them. He went on to serve twenty years. Etheridge died in 1900. Pea Island continued to be manned by an all-black crew through the Second World War. The station was decommissioned in 1947.