Teaching About Slavery: Spotswood Rice Letters

31, July 2013

In a museum context, school groups are like the tide: They wash in, stay with us, and then wash back out into the community. We have to trust that we are planting a seed that we will never have the joy of seeing grow. But we can do everything in our power to make sure the seed will eventually flower. We only have one hour to plant this seed, but the good news is that, sometimes that it all it takes.

In this series of Teaching About Slavery posts, we’ve been recounting our gallery tour for elementary school visits to the Civil War in Missouri exhibit. We began at the Freedom’s Memorial statue, where students were encouraged to wrestle with the question of how we should remember emancipation. The statue tells a story of African Americans as passive, thankful recipients of a gift; it was controversial from the moment it was unveiled, and our goal was for students to begin to understand why this was, even as they sought their own answers to this question.

artwork depicting Catherine GrahamSpotswood Rice artwork by Museum intern Catherine Graham.

After the second stop in the gallery tour, where students came to see enslaved people as unsung heroes in American history, we introduced them to enslaved Missourians as individuals rather than a group. We did this with the story of Spotswood Rice and his daughter Mary.

Rice was enslaved on a farm just outside of St. Louis. His daughter’s recollections, collected later by a WPA interviewer, recount the mistreatment he faced in that situation. As the tide turned in the war, Rice was one of thousands of soldiers of color who ran away from their enslavement to fight for freedom in the Union army.

While he was away, he wrote two letters home: one to his daughters, telling them he loved them and would see them soon, and another to Kittey Diggs, the woman who enslaved his daughters. Rice’s letters are poignant, at once filled with the love of a father for his children, and the righteous anger of a father whose love was questioned and even denied.

We would listen to these together, and you can download them at the bottom of this post. Or, to view the letters, click here.

Students’ eyes were wide as we asked them: How did you feel, listening to these letters? What was the tone of each one? What does it mean that he wrote a letter to his daughters—what can he do, and what does he know they can do? What parts of what he said stuck out to you, and why? Did you understand why he said certain things?

The conversation would snowball. And then we would ask the final question: If Kittey Diggs received this letter and gave his daughters back to him, could anyone imagine Spotswood Rice kneeling down to say thank you, like in the statue?

Children could not seem to shake their heads hard enough.

And we walked out of that gallery knowing that they had been offered something new, that their experience in the Civil War in Missouri had changed them.

We only have an hour with these students, but sometimes an hour is enough. We’ll be designing similar experiences in our upcoming exhibit Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty.

—Education Coordinator Lisa Gilbert

spotswood 01.mp34.29 MB
spotswood 02.mp33.96 MB