The U.S. Life-Saving Service was formed in 1871 to assure the safe passage of Americans and International shipping and to save lives and salvage cargo. Station 17 located on the desolate beaches of Pea Island, North Carolina and manned by a crew of seven, bore the brunt of this dangerous but vital duty.
A former slave and Civil War veteran, Richard Etheridge, the only black man to lead a lifesaving crew - was its captain. He recruited and trained a crew of African Americans to man Station 17. Benjamin Bowser, Louis Wescott, William Irving, George Pruden, Maxie Berry and Herbert Collins made up part of this team and formed the only all-black station in the Nation. Although civilian attitudes towards Etheridge and his men ranged from curiosity to outrage, they figured among the most courageous surfmen in the service, performing many daring rescues from 1880 to the closing of the station in 1947. The Pea Island crew saved scores of men, women and children, who, under other circumstances would have been considered the hands of those reaching out to help them, to be of the wrong race.
In 1896, when the three-masted schooner E.S. Newman breached during a hurricane, Etheridge and his men accomplished one of the most daring rescues in the annals of the Life-Saving Service. The violent conditions had rendered their equipment useless. Undaunted, the surfmen swam out to the wreck, making nine trips in all and saving the entire crew. This incredible feat went unrecognized until 1996, when the Coast Guard posthumously awarded the crew the Gold Life-Saving Medal.
The North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island has an exhibit dedicated to the original station.
"It was the first life-saving station in the country to have an all-black crew, and it was the first in the nation to have a black man, Richard Etheridge, as the commanding officer."
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