The men and women of the Coast Guard Cutter Richard Etheridge stepped onto historic ground on a warm December day in Manteo, N.C., on Roanoke Island. Led by Cmdr. Christian Lee, the crew was welcomed by a crowd of local residents, many representing families who have lived on the island since colonial times.
The crew came to learn about a man who started life as a slave, fought as a soldier, lived as a freeman, served as a sailor, and later became a hero. This Coast Guard hero is Richard Etheridge, keeper of Pea Island Lifesaving Station.
“The whole Outer Banks and the Coast Guard have such a connection because of the establishment of those early life saving stations in 1874,” said John Wilson, former mayor of Manteo. “It has been a long close history between the Outer Bankers and the Coast Guard.”
“Richard Etheridge, our namesake, most famously is the first African American to command a lifesaving station,” said Lee. “The U.S. lifesaving service is one of the organizations, which eventually formed the modern Coast Guard.”
Etheridge was born a slave to John Etheridge, but was treated almost as well as his owner’s white children, learning to read and write beside them. This gave rise to the belief that Richard was the illegitimate son of John Etheridge, although it was never confirmed.
During the Civil War, Union troops landed on the Outer Banks. Etheridge enlisted in the Black Regiments and fought with bravery. He continued to serve after the war when he enlisted with the Buffalo Soldiers, earning the rank of regimental commissary sergeant before departing the military.
On his return home, Etheridge was given land to live on by John Etheridge and took a part-time job in 1875 at the Pea Island Lifesaving Station. After a series of disastrous blunders, the U.S. Lifesaving Service dismissed the station keeper. Etheridge’s name came up as the best prospect while the USLS was searching for a replacement.
“White and black alike pointed to Richard Etheridge as the guy who was the best at what he did,” said Lee. Due to segregation laws at the time, the service appointed a full black crew to serve under Etheridge. Etheridge led a crew of 17 African Americans into the history books after the schooner E.S. Newman ran aground during a hurricane in 1896. Battling turbulent waters, the heroic crew rescued all nine people from the distressed schooner.
Etheridge held the position of keeper until his death in 1900. The cutter crew visited Richard Etheridge’s grave, located on the grounds of the North Carolina Aquarium. His resting place is a simple affair, a white tombstone, laid into the ground, surrounded by his close family.
“As the first crew of the cutter named after him, it is really on us to honor the namesake in different ways,” said Lee as the crew paid their respect at Etheridge’s grave. What the crew is most proud of is the name boards on the side of the cutter. The wood came from the floor beams of the Etheridge family farmhouse.
The 154-foot USCG Cutter Richard Etheridge was built at Grand Isle, La., launched in August 2011, and commissioned at Port Everglades, Fla., on Aug. 3, 2012. It is the second of the Sentinel class cutters, which are being built to replace the 110-foot Island class cutters. It is based in Miami with sister ships Bernard C. Webber and William Flores.
With a full suite of modern technology, a more than 28-knot max speed, and a longer endurance, this patrol boat extends the Coast Guard’s mission far into the future, while reaching back and embracing the legacy of Richard Etheridge’s past.