In the roundabout at the intersection of Sir Walter Raleigh and Bideford streets, a part of the community's African-American heritage is being preserved and interpreted with a statue and a museum. A life-sized bronze statue of Richard Etheridge, the first African-American United States Life-Saving Service Keeper at Pea Island Station on the Outer Banks, is in the roundabout's median. Adjacent, the Pea Island Cookhouse Museum is housed in the refurbished former cookhouse of the historic Pea Island Station and honors the African-American men who courageously served under Etheridge.
Born into slavery on Roanoke Island, Etheridge was in charge of the U.S. Life-Saving Service Station at Pea Island from January 1880 to May 1900. The story of Etheridge and the Pea Island surfmen has been immortalized in the riveting book, Fire on the Beach, and recently made into a documentary film, Rescue Men. Despite living during a time of great prejudice – his station was burned to the ground by disgruntled whites and white lifesavers who refused to work for him – Etheridge’s career was one of distinction. Having been a sergeant in the Colored Troops of the Union Army during the Civil War, he ran the station with military precision. This resulted in successful lifesaving missions, including the chilling rescue of the E.S. Newman on October 11, 1896, when two of his crew moved through hurricane-force seas to save lives. While fighting to end slavery during the Civil War, Etheridge also fought for the rights of people on the homefront who were being mistreated in the Freedmen’s Colony. He co-authored a compelling letter to the commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau and signed it “on behalf of humanity.” The statue of Etheridge was crafted by Stephen H. Smith of Marshville, who has also sculpted the likenesses of Martin Luther King Jr. and Wilbur and Orville Wright.
In the museum you’ll see original artifacts from the U.S. Life-Saving Service, the shipboard from the E.S. Newman and a video and learn about the history of Etheridge and his crew. If you want to take a tour, call Frank Hester at the number above to arrange a time.