UMSL grad student uncovers remarkable story of slave's fight to get his daughter

ST. LOUIS (KSDK) - One of the best reviewed movies in theaters is "12 Years A Slave," a true story about a free black man kidnapped into slavery. A former Missouri slave named Spotswood Rice spent part of his life in St. Louis and has a remarkable story of his own.

Enslaved on a farm outside of St. Louis, Spotswood Rice was one of thousands of former slaves who enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War. Rice's daughter Mary was still a slave, owned by a woman named Kitty Diggs in Glasgow, Missouri. In September 1864, Spotswood Rice wrote a letter to Diggs threatening revenge if he didn't get his daughter back.

"I want you to remember one thing," Rice wrote, "the longer you keep my child from me, the longer you will have to burn in Hell."

"In that era those kinds of things were punishable by death almost instantly," said Ellen Huls. "They very well could've tracked him down and killed him in the streets for doing something like that."

Nine years ago, Ellen Huls was a Missouri-St. Louis graduate student, spending months researching and writing a 25 page paper about Rice. Eventually her research and detective work led her to Spotswood's great-great-granddaughter, Portia Taylor, in St. Louis.

"I just assumed the family would be aware of its ancestor," said Huls. "They had no idea. They had never heard of Spotswood Rice."

She's still amazed at the force and eloquence of Rice's letter to his daughter's slave owner.

"He was demanding it and saying basically, 'you have no right. This is my child. And everyday longer that you keep her you're going to burn in hell.' It was really a pretty shocking letter to write to a slave owner," she said.

Lisa Gilbert of the Missouri History Museum has delivered countless lectures to school children about the bravery of Spotswood Rice.

"We don't talk enough about the everyday courage of enslaved families," said Gilbert, "so while the Spotswood Rice story is unique in the sense that we have an unusually large amount of documentation for it, I think we can also see him as speaking for hundreds and thousands of enslaved fathers throughout history."

It isn't known if Spotswood Rice had a showdown with Kitty Diggs, but the story had a happy ending. Rice reunited with his family. He became an influential minister in the African Methodist Episcopal church, founding the first black church in New Mexico.

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