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Fire on the Beach

Recovering the Lost Story of Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers

About The Book

From the Civil War to the turn of the century, this is the true-life story of the original coast guard, and one crew of African American heroes who fought storms and saved lives off North Carolina's outer banks.

Fire on the Beach recovers a lost gem of American history. It tells the story of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, formed in 1871 to assure the safe passage of American and international shipping and to save lives and salvage cargo. A century ago, the adventures of the now forgotten "surfmen" who, in crews of seven, bore the brunt of this dangerous but vital duty filled the pages of popular reading material, from Harper's to the Baltimore Sun and New York Herald. Station 17, located on the desolate beaches of Pea Island, North Carolina, housed one such unit, and Richard Etheridge—the only black man to lead a lifesaving crew—was its captain.

A former slave and Civil War veteran, Etheridge recruited and trained a crew of African Americans, forming the only all-black station in the nation. Although civilian attitudes toward 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 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 beached 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 saved the entire crew. This incredible feat went unrecognized until 1996, when the Coast Guard posthumously awarded the crew the Gold Life-Saving Medal.

The authors depict the lives of Etheridge and his crew against the backdrop of late-nineteenth-century America—the horrors of the Civil War, the hopefulness of Reconstruction, and the long slide toward Plessy v. Ferguson that followed. Full of exploits and heroics, Fire on the Beach, like the movie Glory, illustrates yet another example of the little-known but outstanding contributions of a remarkable group of African Americans to our country's history.

About The Authors

David Wright is the author of Fire on the Beach, Away Running, Remedies in Equity, and Remedies Under the Trade Practice Act. He is also the screenwriter for the documentary Rescue Men. His work has earned numerous awards from the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, among others. His writing has appeared in The Village VoiceThe Kenyon ReviewNewsdayCallalooThe Massachusetts ReviewThe Chronicle of Higher Education, and elsewhere. He currently teaches at the University of Illinois.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (January 10, 2002)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743218214

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Raves and Reviews

Alyson Hagy author of Graveyard of the Atlantic As Richard Etheridge is a "man among men," so is this story of the heroic Pea Island lifesaving crew a tale among tales. Drama, courage, character, the riches of recovered history -- Fire on the Beach burns with them all.

Stephen O'Connor author of Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed Wright and Zoby's tale of the Pea Island surfmen's heroic struggles against racism and the sea is wise, brilliantly crafted, and as gripping as any maritime adventure novel. Fire on the Beach re-creates life on the North Carolina coast from the days of slavery to the early twentieth century in novelistic detail, and inspires us with the dignity and determination of Richard Etheridge, the leader of the all-African-American lifesaving team. This is history at its best.

Marita Golden author of The Edge of Heaven David Wright and David Zoby have written a gripping, unforgettable account of a group of forgotten but undeniable American heroes.

Jay Neugeboren author of Imagining Robert and Big Man David Wright and David Zoby are splendid guides who takes us through an exciting chapter of our nation's hitherto unheralded history, and into lives made legend by brave black seamen of the nineteenth century. They have brought to life an amazing story that does honor to African-Americans and to brave seamen everywhere.

Philip Graham author of How to Read an Unwritten Language and coauthor of Parallel Worlds Combining a thrilling narrative pace with meticulous research, David Wright and David Zoby have restored for us all a vibrant chapter of our common history that should never be forgotten.

Sheri Reynolds author of The Rapture of Canaan David Wright and David Zoby have woven together a story like none I've read before. I can't combine enough words to describe this enthralling book. It is the best history lesson I've received in years, but it reads like an adventure, with language both clear and poetic.

Tom Franklin author of Poachers Far more than mere history, Fire on the Beach is a grand American adventure story, perfectly paced and surely told, filled with lore, meticulous detail, and a dozen perfect storms.

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