Before the establishment of the United States Coast Guard, there was the United States Life-Saving Service.
The Life-Saving Service was responsible for operating stations in coastal regions, rescuing shipwreck victims and assisting those experiencing problems at sea.
In 1880, Richard Etheridge became the first African American to command a lifesaving station when he was appointed keeper (head life saver) of the Pea Island Station on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Etheridge led an all-black crew and put them through demanding drills to make sure they were ready and able to tackle all lifesaving tasks. He was hailed as one of the most courageous and ingenious lifesavers in the service. Under him, Pea Island Station became one of the most efficient lifesaving stations in the country.
In 1996, the Coast Guard Gold Lifesaving Medal was awarded posthumously to Etheridge and his Pea Island crew for their daring rescue of the crew of the E.S. Newman in 1896
Richard Etheridge was born into slavery in 1842. At the age of twenty-one, he joined the Second North Carolina Colored Volunteers and served three years in the Union Army. He died in 1900 while still in service at the Pea Island Life-Saving Station.