Rice, Spotswood

Encyclopedia entry by ,
University of Missouri-Kansas City

An African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Kansas. Spotswood Rice served as an AME minister in Kansas and Missouri after the Civil War. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Biographical information:

  • Date of birth: November 20, 1819
  • Place of birth: Virginia
  • Claim to fame: Successfully escaped from slavery and served in the 67th Regiment, U.S. Colored Infantry
  • Date of death: October 31, 1907
  • Final resting place: Evergreen Cemetery, Colorado Springs

As the entire nation went to war, slaves in Missouri, a border state where slavery was legal until 1865, remained in bondage. The story of Spotswood Rice illustrates the Civil War experience of one such slave and his personal battle to liberate himself and his family. Waged without certainty of success, within a legal framework that denied his freedom even as neighbor fought neighbor on the Missouri-Kansas border, Spotswood Rice and his family represent the courage of African American slaves who were willing to risk everything for freedom.

Spotswood Rice was born into slavery in Virginia on November 20, 1819, and moved with his family to Missouri when he was quite young. He lived on the plantation of Benjamin Lewis, where he worked as a tobacco roller. In 1852, Spotswood married Orry Ferguson and together they had seven children. Orry and her children were owned by members of the Diggs family in Glasgow, Missouri. For the first 12 years of their marriage they lived apart, as was common with Missouri slave couples. As a result, Spotswood was only allowed to visit his family two nights each week. Years later, their daughter, Mary Bell, shared her memories of these visits with a Works Progress Administration interviewer.

The abuse Spotswood suffered from the slave driver on Benjamin Lewis’s plantation drove him to run away on several occasions in an attempt to reach “Free Kansas.”

The abuse Spotswood suffered from the slave driver on Benjamin Lewis’s plantation drove him to run away on several occasions in an attempt to reach “Free Kansas.” Even after the Militia Act of 1862 allowed employment of African American men in the service of the Union army, the status of Missouri slaves remained muddy. The 2nd Confiscation Act, passed at the same time, only freed slaves of “disloyal” citizens. Slaves of “loyal” citizens had to have their owner’s permission to join the Union army.

When the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 was implemented, it did not free Missouri slaves, but it did suspend enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, making it possible for Rice to run for freedom to the Union lines. In February 1864 he finally gained his freedom by enlisting in the 67th Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry. Unfortunately, since slaves in the slaveholding border states had not been freed, Rice’s family, like the families of many African American soldiers, continued in bondage after his enlistment.

From his hospital bed, Rice continued the battle to have Mary and Cora reunited with the rest of the family. He wrote to them with words of affection, reassuring them that they had not been abandoned.

Spotswood was assigned to the Benton Barracks Hospital in St. Louis, where he worked as a military nurse and was eventually hospitalized with chronic rheumatism. By September 1864, Orry and all but two of their daughters, Mary (12) and Cora (23), managed to reach St. Louis, where Orry worked as a laundress to support the family. From his hospital bed, Rice continued the battle to have Mary and Cora reunited with the rest of the family. He wrote to them with words of affection, reassuring them that they had not been abandoned.

At the same time, Spotswood wrote a letter filled with threats of retribution to Kittey Diggs, who owned his daughter Mary. Miss Diggs’s brother, F. W. Diggs, the postmaster of Glasgow, owned Rice’s daughter, Cora. Angered by Rice’s threats against his sister, Diggs forwarded the letters to General Rosecrans, Commander of the Department of the Missouri, demanding that Rice be sent out of the state.

Filed away in the military records, the three documents survived to inform history and testify to the hostility between slaves and their former owners during the tumultuous Civil War experience. They also demonstrate the deep bonds that African American families formed, even when forced to endure the separations of “abroad marriages,” as well as the battles these families undertook to reestablish their families during and after the Civil War. That Rice was successful in his efforts is evidenced by the 1880 Census, which reported Rice and Orry living in St. Louis with their children, including Cora (39) and Mary (28).

The letters also demonstrate Rice’s effort to exert his manhood as a free citizen – a status he believed he had earned through his military service to the Union. In this too he was successful. After leaving the army in May 1865, Spotswood Rice became a licensed minister in the African American Methodist Church, serving in Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico, and Colorado. In the process, Rice was successful in gaining middle class status in the community for himself and his family. He died in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on October 31, 1907.

Suggested Reading: 

Berlin, Ira and Leslie S. Rowland, Associate Editor, ed. Families and Freedom: A Documentary History of African-American Kinship in the Civil War Era. New York: New York Press, 1997.

Foner, Eric. The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. New York: W. W. Norton, 2010.

Mutti Burke, Diane. On Slavery's Border: Missouri's Small-Slaveholding Households, 1815-1865. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2010.

Cite this page: 
Keating, Deborah. "Rice, Spotswood" Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Library. Accessed May, 21, 2019 at http://civilwaronthewesternborder.org/encyclopedia/rice-spotswood


Yes, I just wanted to add

Yes, I just wanted to add this to the legacy of Rev. Spotswood Rice. I am the pastor of Grant Chapel A.M.E. Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The church was founded in 1882, long before New Mexico became a state. The founding pastor was Rev. Spotswood Rice.

Rev. Spotswood Rice was also

Rev. Spotswood Rice was also a pastor at St. James A.M.E. Church in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Local historian Dr. Steven Hoffman, in a current application to put the church on the National Registry included this history on Rev. Rice and his association with the congregation's first and current church building: In 1875, the current St. James AME Church was built under the pastorate of Spotswood (Spotsford) Rice, a literate, half-French businessman and reverend from St. Louis. According to the St. James school superintendent, W.R. Kenney, Rev. Rice acted quickly to build the new brick church. Kenney noted that “The days of Miracles are supposed to be passed; nevertheless, strange things sometimes occur; closely bordering thereon.” He went on to observe that “Just seven weeks have elapsed since Rev. S. Rice took the pastoral charge of the place, and, notwithstanding the shortness of the time, we have built a new place of worship, not only an honor to the cause and a credit to our people, but an ornament to the city.” In Kenney’s account, Rev. Rice did not wait for the officers of the church to act, but instead took matters into his own hands. He “consulted mechanics, and employed them on the easiest terms, and dealers in building materials, of who he obtained liberal donations, and thus the work went on, the offices of the church having only to second his motions.” The secret to Rice’s success was, according to Kenney, that Rice “laid down the first dollar, and then requested the members of the church, and the friends of the cause to do likewise.”



I wrote a two-part article about the life of Spottswood Rice on my blog:
Part 1: http://usctchronicle.blogspot.com/2012/03/words-actions-and-life-of-spot...
Part 2: http://usctchronicle.blogspot.com/2012/04/life-words-and-actions-of-spot...

His life was an amazing one, and the determination of having his family reunited was a true reflection of both his faith and his love for his family. His life story is now being taught in schools and his daughter Mary's interview as part of the WPA slave narratives also adds flavor and dimension to his life story. From Missouri to New Mexico and then to Colorado where he died--his is a story of resistance, resilience and love.

Ms. Yalto - I would very much

Ms. Yalto - I would very much like to enter into dialogue with you about many of the things you have discovered. On your site, you mentioned that you belonged to a genealogical society that has researched Spottswood Rice; Have you done any research on his descendants? I am his great great great grandson. The information you have provided is a tremendous blessing for my Family. Until I came across your link below, we had no knowledge of where his final resting place was Do you know if any pictures exist anywhere?

This is a treasure trove of

This is a treasure trove of information. It is embarrassing for me to realize that there is so much information within the public domain about the man I descended from, and my Family had virtually no knowledge of him. I am the great great great grandson of Spotswood Rice. His Daughter, Mary Rice Bell, is the mother of Mary Virginia Bell Miller, My Great Grandmother. I tried doing genealogical research when I was a 12 year old boy scout for the merit badge but got stuck at Bell and did not go further. Interestingly enough, I have a great great uncle, William Bell, Mary Rice Bell's son, my G-Grandmothers brother who became infamous for re-enlisting in the US Army as a 62 year old private in the Phillipines and surving the Battaan Death March. He died in the prison camp. I did not know about any of this until 2004 when a young grad student named Ellen Pandolfo at USML wrote a research paper about Spotswood Rice, and her genological reseach lead her to my mother, and then to me. The Post Dispatch wrote a piece on it in 2004 because they thought it was significant that I am his descendant, and a US Army Chaplain. It was the Army that made his freedom possible, and his faith that informed his convictions. It is a blessing to know I am descended from such a great man, and I continue to be blessed the more stories and accounts of his life that I discover. I was not aware of where he was buried until reading this article, I only knew that he went "out west" to plant churches. I will make a trip one day to Colorado Springs, and visit his gravesite, and take my children with me. Our Family plot, where Mary Rice Bell is buried is at St Peter's Cemetery in St Louis MO. It is important for us to know our Family's history and struggle. I wish I had known these things about my Family history when I was a wayward young man growing up on the West Side of St Louis MO. But I am glad to know these things now. Thank you to all who have shared your findings, and God Bless You!

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