Sink or Swim: African-American Lifesavers of the Outer Banks
by Carole Boston Weatherford
Grade levels: 3-8
Synopsis: When ships wrecked off the coast of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the brave lifesavers at Pea Island Station rushed to the scene. In 1880 Richard Etheridge, an ex-slave who fought with the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War, was appointed keeper at Pea Island, becoming the first black commander in the U.S. Lifesaving Service. When the white surfmen quit, refusing to take orders from a black man, Etheridge enlisted an all-black crew. Under Etheridge’s leadership, the nation’s only all-black lifesaving crew performed death-defying rescues. During an 1896 hurricane, the lifesavers waded and swam in pairs to a shipwreck to bring nine survivors, one by one, safely ashore. The Pea Island surfmen received no medals for their heroism, though white crews were honored for less daring feats. In 1995, an eighth grader, a Coast Guard officer and two graduate students took up the crew’s cause. The long-overdue gold medals were finally awarded in 1996.
Vocabulary Words: breeches buoy, hawser, lifeboat, life car, line, shoals, surfman
- Why are North Carolina’s coastal waters known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic?
- Would you have followed the keeper’s orders and swum through the hurricane in 1896? Why or why not?
- How did Etheridge’s background and experience prepare him to be a lifesaver and keeper?
- What affect do you think racial prejudice had on the lifesavers?
- What character traits did the lifesavers exemplify?
- What do you think you would find on the ocean floor if you went scuba diving in the waters off the Outer Banks?
Activity I: Letter Writing
Curriculum links: Language Arts and Social Studies
- Explain that letters can aim to persuade or protest. Note that eighth grader Katie Burkart’s letter to the president, congress people and the Coast Guard commandant helped lead to the awarding of gold medals to the lifesavers.
- In Sink or Swim, read the letter that Etheridge wrote to the Freedmen’s Bureau, protesting unfair treatment of the ex-slaves at the Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony.
- Tell students to imagine they are Keeper Etheridge. Write a letter from him to the superintendent of the U.S. Lifesaving Service. The letter will appeal to the U.S. Lifesaving Service to award medals to his crew.
Activity II: Hurricane Names
Curriculum links: Science and Language Arts
Materials and supplies: Pencil, paper, computer
- Explain the history of naming hurricanes. At one time, hurricanes were known only by the dates. Since 1953, the National Weather Service has compiled an alphabetical list of names for each season’s hurricanes. At first, hurricanes were named only for women. Now, every other hurricane is given a man’s name.
- Have students conduct Internet research to find out the names and dates of the worst hurricanes to hit the North Carolina coast. Note: The six worst hurricanes in terms of fatalities were: Diane, 200 deaths (1955); Floyd, 53 deaths (1999); Fran, 24 deaths (1996); Hazel, 19 deaths (1954); Donna, 8 deaths (1960); Hugo, 7 deaths (1989). The students may visit the National Hurricane Center. These questions should guide their research. Which three states are hit by the most hurricanes? What are the five worst storms that have hit your state? What should you pack in a hurricane readiness kit? What were the names of last year’s hurricanes?
Tell students to work in pairs to compile an alphabetical list of hurricane names. Each name should be preceded by an adjective that describes hurricane conditions. Examples: Windy Wanda; Violent Viola.