Black lightkeepers and their stories

October is Black History month, so I am sharing some of the stories of black lightkeepers.

In the days when British lighthouses were manned (and I use that word advisedly) light-keeping was a white affair. The people of colour who have been part of British life since Tudor times lived mainly in the cities; it is not likely that Trinity House or the Northern Lighthouse Board were actively racist, but light-keeping appealed mainly to men who grew up in remote communities and on rural coasts.

Mingo and the Harwich Lighthouses

The first black Lightkeeper recorded by name was Mingo who was the servant, or possibly the slave, of Sir William Batten. Batten died in 1667, leaving his ownership of the Harwich lighthouses to his heirs, and a legacy to pay Mingo to operate the lighthouses.

I give and bequeath to my servante Mingoe a Negroe that now dwelleth with mee the somme of Tenne pounds to be paid within Twelve monethes next after my decease.  And I doe alsoe give unto him the said Mingoe the Custody and keeping of my Light houses Att Harwich, and the somme of Twenty pounds a yeare of lawfull money of England during the Terme of his naturall life for his paines therein ….

Samuel Pepys mentioned Mingo in his diaries before Sir William’s death:

We learn that Mingo is a very trusted servant, on one occasion gets beaten by underpaid sailors while carrying his masters’ cloak. He has enough of a sense of humour to share a joke with Samuel on Valentine’s day 1661. He seems to be good with animals as well: the parrot in the April 10th entry recognises him immediately.

In 1686, a Thomas Mingo was married in St Mary’s parish church in Huntingdon, but it is not clear if he is the same man. Apart from that brief glimpse, it seems that little else is recorded of Mingo and the lighthouses at Harwich.

American lighthouses and African American Slaves

The first African American lightkeepers were slaves, often owned by the men who were appointed as keepers of the lights. This wasn’t officially sanctioned. For example, in North Carolina:

Census records reflect that Pharoah Farrow owned six African-American slaves in 1830. Federal lighthouse documents reveal that … his slaves functioned as the actual keepers of the light. When this information reached the offices of the Fifth Auditor of the U.S. Treasury, Pharoah Farrow was fired.

This continued throughout the middle years of the 19th Century, especially in the South.

Jennett’s immediate supervisor [wrote] to superiors that he was aware that Jennett had a slave who “performs most of the labor of cleaning, lighting, [etc.], but under the constant personal inspection of the keeper.” … Jennett’s successor was his son-in-law, William O’Neal. O’Neal had six African-Americans in his household, and likely continued… the tradition of delegating his lighthouse keeping responsibilities to one or more of his slaves. They had to … daily wipe clean more than 1,000 pieces of glass of the lens.


Aaron Carter at Cape Florida

Light-keeping anywhere is dangerous, but there were added risks in 19thC America:

Only July 23, 1836, at about four o’clock in the afternoon, Seminole Indians surrounded the Cape Florida lighthouse. .Assistant Keeper Thompson … ran for the lighthouse, shouting for his assistant, some versions of the story say his slave, Aaron Carter, to follow.

The Seminoles Attack Cape Florida Lighthouse

The Seminoles fired a shower of rifle balls, but neither Thompson nor Carter was hit. They reached the safety of the lighthouse and locked the door behind them.

Next, the Seminoles set fire to the lighthouse. Soon the flames worked their way up the inside of the tower and burnt the wooden staircase. Thompson and Carter were in danger of being roasted alive, so Thompson decided to take desperate measures. He hauled a keg of gun powder, an axe, some loose shot and one of his muskets to the top of the tower, leaving Carter below to guard the door. Thompson grabbed his axe and ran to chop the stairs. He called Carter to help him and together the two men chopped through the timbers holding the staircase. It collapsed with a crash, providing a pile of extra fuel for the fire.

Fed by the extra wood, flames roared up the shaft under the lantern room. Thompson and Carter inched their way to the edge of the lantern platform which measured about two feet wide. Flames licked at the lantern and its lamps and the glass burst and flew in all directions. The clothing of the two men caught on fire. Still, they couldn’t move away, because as soon as they stood up they would be clear targets for the Indians.

Thompson and Carter Throw a Powder Keg on the Fire

Then Thompson decided that a quick death was better than being slowly roasted. He and Carter slid over, pushing the powder keg ahead of them. They reached the scuttle and opened it. They threw the powder keg into the fire below. There was a deafening blast and the tower shook from top to bottom. The force of the explosion extinguished the fire for a few minutes and piled up more wood at the bottom of the shaft. Revived by this new fuel, the fire soon started up again.

Aaron Carter decided that he didn’t want a slow, fiery death either. He stood up. A bullet whined and Carter slumped over and lay still.

Aaron Carter died then or shortly after, but the Semioles besieged Keeper Thompson in the lighthouse tower overnight, leaving the next day. However, it was not until the day after that, the 25th, that Keeper Thompson was finally rescued. He was badly burned, thirsty and hungry, and had been shot in both feet. He recovered from his wounds and returned to the Lighthouse service.

Venus Parker

90 years later, William Parker faced different risks as lightkeeper at Killock Shoal Lighthouse. As a victim of racist persecution, he was at one time caught between his obligations to join a law-enforcement posse and his duties as a lightkeeper. But the story of his wife Venus shows even more courage and dedication.

Killock Shoal Lighthouse.

On the night of January 23, 1911… there was a strange feeling that came over the people as they looked out into the darkness of Chincoteague Channel and Chincoteague Bay; they did not see a light coming from the lighthouse. Only darkness… Finally it was decided to launch a boat and go out to the lighthouse.

On board the launch was Parker’s wife, Venus… As they approached the lighthouse, they could see that the station’s boat was hanging in its place. But they also noticed that, as well as there being no light in the lantern room, there were no lights on in the house. [The rescue party] entered the bedroom and there they found Parker. He was dead on his knees, with has hands gripped together and his head upon the bed. He had died while praying.

Parker’s wife, Venus, was grief stricken. But she also knew that she was the wife of a lighthouse keeper and knew that the light must be lit and, having worked with her husband, she knew what needed to be done. She instructed the others to take her husband’s body to the mainland and she would stay and tend to the lighthouse. After all, the lives of others depended on that the light being on.

William M. Parker died a young man; he was 55 at the time of his death, [However his] widow, Venus, or Aunt Venus, as the locals referred to her, was appointed as his replacement. She continued to keep the lighthouse for a little more than a year, when she resigned in March of 1912…. In 1914 Venus remarried and records indicate she was still living in 1930 at the age of 70.

Further reading

If you like internet rabbit holes, these links will help you discover more of the little-reported history of Black lightkeepers. It’s a history worth exploring.