On February 10, 1896, the only station of the U.S. Life-Saving Service (USLSS) with an all-African American crew at that time undertook one of its many vital rescue missions in the stormy waters along and near Pea Island within the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
At around 3:30 in the morning and in the midst of strong northwest winds, the schooner Maggie J. Lawrence – transporting coal from Norfolk, Virginia, to Charleston, South Carolina – ended up foundering in heavy waves approximately 250 yards (228.6 meters) offshore and three-quarters of a mile (1.2 kilometers) south of the Pea Island Life-Saving Station. Richard Etheridge, the station’s keeper and the first African-American to hold that position in the USLSS, soon led his crew to the area where the Maggie J. Lawrence was trapped.
Etheridge, who had been born a slave in the Outer Banks region and served in the Union Army during the Civil War, was appointed keeper in 1880 and would remain in that capacity until his death in 1900. (The above photo, which was taken sometime around 1896, features Etheridge and his crew; Etheridge is standing on the far left.)
After assessing that the schooner was gradually drifting closer to the shore anyway and was not in immediate danger of breaking apart, Etheridge decided that the most effective strategy would be to wait until daylight started to appear before initiating rescue operations. As the skies began to grow lighter at around 4:30, Etheridge and his crew made their way out to the Maggie J. Lawrence in a surfboat. They were able to take the ship’s crew of seven men and their baggage off the ship without any mishaps.
In several key respects, and at a time when African Americans faced a considerable amount of institutionalized discrimination both within the USLSS and elsewhere, the rescue of the crew of the Maggie J. Lawrence illustrated both the proficiency and heroism of the Pea Island station’s crew under the demanding but highly skilled leadership of Etheridge.
Additional information on Richard Etheridge and his crew at the Pea Island Life-Saving Station is available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pea_Island_Life-Saving_Station