Monday, 12 January 2015

TO ASSIST OR PROFIT: A MISSIONARY AMONGST THE FUGITIVE SLAVES

AFRICAN CANADIAN HISTORY

BY: BLAIR NEWBY

The year was 1855, it had been a calamitous several years for Reverend Isaac Rice, an American Missionary labouring amongst the former slaves in Amherstburg, Ontario, however, nothing would be more detrimental to his character than the events which unfolded on April 13, 1855. This date marked the burning of what was referred to as Rice’s “so called mission house.” As the flames dissipated and the ashes were swept away, a scandal erupted concerning Rice’s mishandling of supplies and finances designated for the relief of former slaves. As the weeks elapsed an investigation was launched into his activities and actions. For items, such as food and clothing designated for the former slaves that Rice claimed he did not possess were found following the fire.

A Presbyterian minister and graduate of Hamilton College, Rice left a comfortable life in Trumbull County, Ohio to begin a new life as a missionary amongst the newly freed slaves in Amherstburg in 1838. As a typical missionary, Rice’s goal was to provide the Black community with their educational and spiritual needs and for ten years Rice laboured within Amherstburg with no incidents, no conflicts and most of all, no accusations of indecency or impropriety. This, however, would not last and by1848, everything began to crumble down around him. Questions regarding his character and reputation and namely his activities within the Black community came under the largest amount of scrutiny.

Amherstburg, Ontario. Circa 1860's.
These accusations included questions of misappropriation of funds and misrepresentation of the Black community’s circumstances in order to solicit more financial support. For instance, after only two years of providing support to Rice, the AMA ended their association with minister in 1850 due to rumours concerning adultery, drunkenness, debt and theft. Moreover, in an article in the Provincial Freeman stated, “Rice [...] has neither the confidence of the fugitives nor of the whites to any extent. His notorious lying and begging operations have been frequently protested against by fugitives and colored people generally in this country…”.


The Provincial Freeman was an anti-slavery newspaper published by Mary Ann Shadd Cary. The newspaper published several letters and articles attacking Rice's mission in Amherstburg.

Rice’s true nature remains a mystery. To a select few, he epitomized the missionary’s devotion, love, and willingness to live in dire circumstance in order to assist the former slaves. While at the same time to a large proportion of the Black community, he was perceived as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and even worst he was perceived as and depicted as a “devil” working for his own gain by many of his critics.

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