June 23, 2016: A major Hollywood cinema release this weekend with wide advertising across North America is Free State of Jones starring the noted Academy Award winning actor Matthew McConaughey. It is the story of Newton Knight, a poor, white farmer in Mississippi who led an armed rebellion against the Confederate States of America, the southern coalition that started the American Civil War in an attempt to maintain slavery.
The movie is based on a little-known true story. Knight established a community in which whites and blacks lived together and his relationship with an African American woman named Georgiana resulted in the birth of his daughter Anna Knight who became the founding member of an extensive Adventist family that continues today.
As a young woman in the post Reconstruction south, Anna sought education and Adventists in New England sent her reading material which led to her conversion to the Adventist faith. In 1894 she was accepted at Mount Vernon Academy in Ohio and in 1898 she graduated from Battle Creek College as a missionary nurse. She returned to Jasper County in Mississippi and started a self-supporting school for black children.
In 1901, Anna Knight was sent by the Adventist denomination as a missionary to India. She was the first African American missionary to India of any Christian denomination in America. After her return from overseas mission service, she was assigned by the denomination to city mission work in Atlanta as a nurse, teacher and Bible instructor. She later served in the education department of the Southern Union Conference and helped to develop Oakwood University in Huntsville.
After her retirement she served as president the National Colored Teachers Association, a secular organization. She wrote an autobiography entitled Mississippi Girl.
In many ways the story demonstrates how Adventists were involved in efforts to improve the lot of African Americans in the aftermath of the Civil War and especially as Jim Crow laws established an American Apartheid that lasted until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. In honor of her contribution to education, the building that houses the education department at Oakwood University today is named Anna Knight Hall. The Anna Knight Center for Women’s Leadership opened on campus in March this year.
Descendants of Newton Knight alive today include Dorothy Knight Marsh, Florence Knight Blaylock and Olga Watts Nelson. They had roles as extras in the movie and can be seen seated on the front row of the balcony in the courtroom scene.
The feature photo with this story pictures the living relatives of Anna Knight on March 27, 2016, at the dedication of the Anna Knight Center for Women’s Leadership at Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama. Courtesy of Oakwood University News Service. Additional information from the Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia.