“God will not look us over for medals, degrees, or diplomas, but for scars.”                                                                                  Elbert Hubbard

Pea Island, North Carolina, June 1878: On the day that 38-year-old Richard Etheredge arrived at the No. 17 Pea Island Life Saving Station, the five white surfmen quit. Six black surfmen were transferred to the station within a few weeks to replace them. A month later, still angry that Etheredge had been promoted over whites, surfmen from Station No. 16 burned the Pea Island station to the ground. Undaunted, Etheredge supervised the rebuilding project under the protection of armed guards.

Almost four decades earlier, Etheredge had been born into slavery on Roanoke Island, North Carolina. He grew up fishing, oystering, and piloting boats on the North Carolina coast for his owner, John Etheredge. Although against the law, his owner taught him to read and write. In 1863, during the Civil War, Richard Etheredge joined the Union Army’s 36th Colored Troop. He initially served as a prison guard but was promoted to sergeant after distinguishing himself at the Battle of Richmond.

After the war, Etheredge joined the North Carolina Life Savers. North Carolina created 18 life-saving stations on the outer banks of North Carolina. Congress established the stations to help rescue passengers and cargo in the event of shipwrecks, a common occurrence at the time.

The stations were operated by a keeper, the commanding officer, and six surfmen. The stations were located six miles apart along the barrier island beaches. By 1878, 125 men were employed at the North Carolina stations. Of this number, just five were black, and all were employed in the No. 6 surfman position as cooks.

Stations operated from April through November, the stormy months on the calendar. Surfmen climbed towers and constantly monitored the ocean. Others walked beach patrol between the stations around the clock. The life-saving teams used two rescue methods: They either rowed out to the wreck in a wooden surfboat or fired a small cannon, called a Lyle Gun, that shot a lifeline to the ship, after which a pulley system was rigged to bring passengers to shore.

In the spring of 1880, the station keeper and No. 1 surfman at the Pea Island Station were not at their posts during a shipwreck and over 100 passengers drowned. As a result, they were fired for dereliction of duties and Richard Etheredge was promoted to station keeper. Etheredge, the No. 6 Surf Man at the Body Island Station, was the first black man to serve as a keeper in the U.S. Life Saving Service.

Painfully aware the standards had to be higher at Pea Island, Etheredge drilled his men with military precision. They practiced with the surfboat and Lyle Gun twice a week. Etherege maintained a first-class crew, a meticulous logbook and a spotless station.

At noon, October 11, 1896, Etheredge wrote in his logbook, “experiencing hurricane conditions.” Despite the storm, the surfmen maintained a vigilant watch from the tower. At 9:00 p.m., Theodore Meekins saw a flare to the north. The crew dispatched and pulled the Lyle Gun two miles down the beach and discovered the 390-ton schooner E.S. Newman had run aground.

The Lyle Gun was of no use in the driving wind and rain. Etheredge asked two volunteers to don life vests and risk their lives to swim to the ship with a rope. Nine times the surfmen took turns swimming out through the crashing waves to rescue all nine passengers, including the captain’s three-year-old son.

From 1895 to 1900, Etheredge’s crew rescued passengers from six shipwrecks with a 100 percent success rate. Etheredge served as the commanding officer at Pea Island for 20 years until he died from pneumonia in 1900 at age 58. The Pea Island station maintained a legacy of black surfmen, and it remained among the best-run stations in the country until it closed in 1947.

On October 11, 1996, in Washington, D.C., 100 years after the heroic rescue of the passengers from the E.S. Newman, the U.S. Coast Guard recognized descendants of Richard Etheredge and the Pea Island Lifesavers with the Coast Guard Gold Life Saving Medal, their highest award.