The marketing for Free State of Jones focuses on the unusual true tale of Newt Knight, a Mississippi man who staged a rebellion against the Confederacy during The Civil War. But his pro-Union stance wasn't the only atypical thing about Newt. He also adopted a former slave named Rachel as his wife. Although they could never officially marry, Newt and Rachel spawned generations of biracial Knights who would struggle for their right to wed whomever they loved through 1949, when Newt’s great-grandson Davis took his case all the way to the Mississippi Supreme Court.
The Knight family saga begins in 1862, when Newton “Newt” Knight deserted the Seventh Battalion of Mississippi Infantry. Knight had been opposed to the South’s secession from The Union, but had voluntarily enlisted in July 1861. His commitment changed, however, after the enactment of the controversial “Twenty Negro Law,” which exempted a white man who owned at least 20 slaves from serving in the Confederate Army. This outraged poor farmers like Knight, who saw the war as a rich man’s fight they were dying for. He and many others abandoned the army and returned to their farms, but what they discovered only further stoked their anger. The Confederates had adopted a policy of taking livestock, corn, and cloth from families in Jones County as a purported tax system to boost the war effort -- and it was leaving many destitute.
This eventually spurred Knight to lead a group of guerrilla fighters originally known as Jones County Scouts in 1863. Their mission was to defend their homes and properties, although they were also supporting the Union in their efforts. Since the local Confederates obviously wanted their heads, Knight and his men embedded themselves in the swamps. Friends and like-minded individuals ran food and intel to them. One of those compatriots was Rachel, a former slave of Knight’s grandfather.
Now, before Knight had entered military service, he had married a white woman named Serena Turner. They had wed and promptly moved into a small cabin in 1858. By 1860, the couple had three sons. Their family would eventually grow to nine children, but the marriage was apparently not a happy one. When the war ended, Knight moved Rachel into his home. He and Rachel occupied a separate house on the farm from Serena and her children -- and it didn’t take long for Rachel to start birthing kids of her own. Newt and Rachel would have five children together. Although he could never marry his unofficial second wife due to 1870s anti-miscegenation laws, Knight claimed the kids as his own, and began dividing his time between his two families.
This is where the story takes an uncomfortable turn, reminiscent of the Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn scandal. Rachel died in 1889, leaving behind not only her children with Newt, but also children presumably fathered by her white masters: Georgeanne, Edmund, Fannie, and Jeffrey. These kids were born before Newt and Rachel began their unconventional “marriage.” And as Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer explain in The State of Jones, Georgeanne essentially took Rachel’s place after her mother passed. She cared for Newt and gave birth to at least two daughters. Although their parentage is not confirmed, most assume they were Newt’s children.
None of the children Newt had with Rachel or Georgeanne could possibly marry white partners in town -- everyone knew their lineage and shunned them as freaks. And so, with their polygamist pop’s approval, they began marrying their first cousins. Newt and Serena’s son Mat married Rachel’s daughter Fannie, while Newt and Serena’s daughter Molly married Rachel’s son Jeffrey.
New generations sprung from these pairings, all with different classifications. There were the White Knights, the Fair Knights, and the Not-So-Fair Knights. They all handled their ancestry differently. Some simply stayed in town and dealt with the prejudice as best they could. Some moved and took pains to hide their genealogy, such as Mat and Fannie’s son George, who moved to Texas, changed his last name, and told everyone he was a white man. Others magnified their all-white parentage at the expense of their biracial cousins, whom they obscured from the family tree. This all brings us to the case of Davis Knight, which would broadcast the family’s turbulent history and strife on a national level.
Davis came from the Jeffrey and Molly Knight side of the family. He looked white, and had passed as white his entire life. (To give you an idea, here’s Brian Lee Franklin, the actor who plays Davis in Free State of Jones.) After serving in the Navy during World War II, Davis came home and married a white woman, June Lee Spradley. Their 1946 wedding took place in front of Spradly’s mother and a civil clerk, who had not asked Davis about his race. But, as Time reports, “a relative, irked by an old family feud, had dug up Davis Knight’s genealogy” and ratted him out. Davis went on trial for violating Mississippi’s anti-miscegenation laws in 1948.
Many family members were called as witnesses. In the end, the prosecution doomed Davis to a conviction by proving he had at least 1/8 African blood and thus, in the eyes of state law, a black man. But his lawyer, Quitman Ross, wasn’t done fighting. Ross appealed the case, claiming that the statue banning interracial marriage was unconstitutional. Ross surely knew this argument would spook the higher courts, which were not eager to have those archaic anti-miscegenation laws closely examined. The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the verdict in 1949, saying the prosecution could not conclusively prove Rachel’s race so long after her death.
It was seemingly a victory, but a hallow one. Davis’s marriage dissolved a few years later, and the laws remained intact for another 18 years. Although certain states had begun loosening the statues governing interracial marriage -- one notable example is California’s Perez v. Sharp -- Mississippi stubbornly stuck to theirs until the verdict in Loving v. Virginia invalidated all anti-miscegenation laws in 1967.
You’ll see glimpses of this courtroom battle in Free State of Jones, as well as Newt’s complicated arrangement with Serena and Rachel. But like any movie, it glosses over the finer details. (For instance, it’s implied that Newt and Serena only had one son and Rachel’s kids prior to Newt are never mentioned.) But director Gary Ross paid history nerds a great fan service by setting up FreeStateofJones.info, an excessively annotated website that fact-checks his own movie. This may be a first for a historical biopic, but hopefully, it won’t be the last.
Feature Image via STX Entertainment.