Kitty Hawk students lobby NCDOT to name span for Etheridge

By on July 20, 2017

Interpreters James Charlet (back left) and Linda Malloy join Joan Collins, Secretary of the Pea Island Preservation Society and Darrell Collins and KHES students to explain the life and times of Keeper Richard Etheridge. (Heather Miller)

Thanks to Heather Miller and some Outer Banks “celebrities,” the movement to name the concrete replacement for the steel temporary bridge over the breach of Pea Island after lifesaving station keeper Richard Etheridge, gained another 68 new supporters.

And each of them took the time this past May to write letters to the North Carolina Department of Transportation to express those sentiments.

Etheridge served in the U.S. Lifesaving Service at the end of the 19th century and was the first and only African-American to serve as a keeper of a lifesaving station.

It’s hard enough to motivate locals to actively engage in matters such as this, so the fact the newly minted activists are all fifth-graders at Kitty Hawk Elementary School is even more impressive.

As is the story of how they became involved: Through the nearly lost art of reading.

Heather Miller is a manager at the Blue Moon Beach Grill in Nags Head, and like many local parents, she volunteers at her child’s school.

Miller heads up a small book club of fifth graders at Kitty Hawk Elementary School.

The group numbers about five, and they decided to read Storm Warriors, a fictional tale of a young man named Nathan and his father who flee the Ku Klux Klan at the end of the 19th century and find their way to Pea Island, where the grandfather lives and works as a fisherman.

Nathan’s father also becomes a fisherman, but Nathan sets his sites on joining the U.S. Lifesaving Service as a surfman, who rescues sailors and passengers from the many ships the foundered offshore running into our deadly shoals.

At that time, the Pea Island lifesaving crew was composed of all African-Americans, providing Nathan role models from whom he learns how to find his place in a world where Jim Crow ruled the day in the south.

The book authored by Elisa Carbone is written for 7 to 12 year-olds and she includes historical facts, including the leadership of Richard Etheridge.

About the same time the club chose this book, the Voice ran a story on how Malcolm Fearing, who at the time was the local representative on the State Transportation Board, was leading an effort to name the bridge on Pea Island after Etheridge.

This led to a conversation with Fearing, which resulted in an invitation for Fearing to address the entire fifth grade class at Kitty Hawk Elementary.

Fearing invited Darrell Collins, National Park Service historian and speaker on the Wright Brothers and the history of African-Americans on the Outer Banks, to join him.

Accompanying Collins were two costumed interpreters, dressed as a lightkeeper and his spouse, and the foursome addressed the class.

Letter from Heath Miller. Photo by Heather Miller.

Suddenly, most of the fifth grade was either reading the book or taking up the cause to lobby NCDOT to name the Pea Island span after Etheridge.

Fearing and Collins shared with the children about a NCDOT tradition of not naming bridges for people who have been deceased for more than 75 years prior to the naming.

“He was the 1st African-American Keeper in the Pea Island Lifesaving Station. Now, I know the rule that you are not allowed to name something after someone after 75 years, but Richard Etheridge is an amazing man. Please show some respect to a tough, amazing man,” Cam Summerton, told the NCDOT in his letter.

“How would you feel if Richard Etheridge was your ancestor and hey wouldn’t allow you to name the Lego Bridge after Richard Etheridge because he has been dead for more than 75 years? Richard Etheridge was born a slave and was taught to read and write. Richard Etheridge was in the Civil War and then went to the lifesaving station,” said Keegan Williams, after citing Etheridge’s accomplishments.

And Lauren Morgan, also citing Etheridge’s qualifications, perhaps sums it up best.

“I know that you can’t name something after someone if they have been dead for more than 75 years, but I think we can make an exception,” Morgan wrote.

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