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5 Mar 2023
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The painting of the Checkerboard Lifesaving Service crew by James Melvin was supposed to be unveiled in February, but some of the key people, according to a press release, came down with COVID and the ceremony had to be postponed.

In some ways that was good, but because as one of the speakers at the event reminded the almost 100 people gathered at the College of the Albemarle classroom for the event, Black history is the history of this country and doesn’t stop because the calendar no longer reads February, or Black History Month.

The Checkerboard crews may have been the first true integration of a US military installation, although at the time it certainly was not thought of in that way. Rather, as the Lifesaving Service was expanding its service in the 1870s and 1880s, they were desperate for trained personnel, and African-American watermen offered a deep reservoir of skill.

The result were what was called Checkerboard crews—usually five whites and one Black crew member. Occasionally two, but never more, and they were invariably the lowest ranking members.

Captain Ricard Etheridge came through that system, and was surfman number 6 at Bodie Island Station when he was tapped to run the station in 1880. White Lifesaving Service personnel refused to serve under him and the station was crewed by all black crewmen until it was decommissioned in 1947.

The ceremony, sponsored by the Pea Island Preservation Society, highlighted a remarkable painting from one of the Outer Banks finest artists. Melvin works in a number of media. Among other things he is the illustrator of Suzanne Tate’s Nature Series books for children.

But what the Saturday picture showed was full color acrylic on canvas of a black and white image of a Checkerboard crew taken in the 1880s, The detail that Melvin has managed to include is astonishing and the picture will hang in Richard Etheridge Lounge at the College of the Albemarle.

The Outer Banks has a rich, vibrant history. Come and explore this extraordinary world while staying in a Brindley Beach Vacations home.