Black History Month:
Joe Rice was the son of slaves, a first-generation free black man of the south. He was loved by all who knew him in his native Claiborne county and beyond.
Joe was an outgoing and personable man of good faith and good mind, respected by young and old. A fabled fox hunter, who raised fine foxhounds, he was sought after for his abilities as a horse doctor.
Governors from three states, along with other notables, made journeys to Claiborne county just to fox hunt with Joe.
Joe Rice was the oldest resident of the county, at the point of his death in 1969. He was at least 103 years of age. His exact birth year was uncertain. By accounts, he was born on May 20 no later than 1866.
Joe was the son of Orleany Houston and Frank Hurst Rice. Orleany had been purchased off the auction block in New Orleans, Louisiana by the Tazewell family of Billy Houston. Frank had belonged to Clint Rice of the Cedar Fork community.
After the Civil War, Joe’s parents decided to make the trek to Knoxville to seek a better life for their family. Joe was left in the care of Dr. John Washington Divine until they could come back for him. Dr. Divine served during the war as a Union Army surgeon. Divine had decided to stay on in Claiborne county after his stint at the last battle of Cumberland Gap.
When Joe’s parents returned for him, he decided to stay with the Divines at Meadow Hill Farm. Joe and his parents remained in contact for the remainder of Orleany’s and Frank’s lives.
In an article published in 1969 by the Claiborne Progress, Miss Milburn Divine details many adventures of the local legend who was Joe Rice.
She recalled the time Joe decided to go along with the youngest Divine son during the Spanish-American War. Paul E. Divine volunteered and became a major under Teddy Roosevelt. Joe went with Paul “to take care of him.”
In the article, Miss Divine recalls Joe’s version of the one time he decided to move away from the county. She estimated the event occurred sometime in the late 1940s.
“A Mr. Fowler down about Knoxville wanted me to come work for him. Said he needed a good man about his horses. I talked it over with your granddaddy and he said, ‘Joe, it sounds like such a good proposition I don’t see how you can turn it down.’
“So, grandma fixed up all my clothes and grandpa got me a new pair of shoes, and grandma packed me a good lunch. I got there, did all my chores, but as evening came on I started back home. I got there just before daylight. It was cold and rainy, and I stood in the kitchen door jamb to keep out of the drizzle. Grandma got up early, came down and opened the door and there I was. She didn’t say ‘Joe, I told you so’ or anything like that. She just said ‘Joe, I bet your mighty hungry,’ and I sure was,” reads the article, in part.
Another adventure recalled by Divine in her article had to do with the transport from Claiborne county to Johnson City of a stallion belonging to Major Paul Divine.
“It was the year 1903 and (Major Divine) was the newly appointed first treasurer of the Veterans’ Administration…Joe said he and the horse left Tazewell before daylight, swam the rivers and crossed the mountains, and spent the night with some friends in Morristown, arriving in Johnson City the next evening – a 100 mile trip on horseback in two days’ time,” reads the article.
Miss Divine says in the article that Joe Rice was beloved by six generations of the Divine family. Those who moved away always made time for visits back home to see Joe. And, Joe visited with extended family as well.
Charles Brooks, who is an alderman for the city of New Tazewell, submitted a copy of the original 1969 article, which he had kept for 50 years. Brooks was Joe’s neighbor during the final few years of his life.
“He was a very alert, happy-go-lucky person. I never saw him in a bad mood or even acting sick even though he was in a wheelchair, having had his leg amputated a few years before. It was an honor to have known him,” said Brooks.
In 1965 Nelle Agnes, the youngest child of Dr. Divine, deeded the house, land, furnishings and personal belongings to Joe for his lifetime. The homestead was located behind where the old Tazewell Drive-In Theatre had stood.
Joe was a devout Christian and a member of the Neal’s Chapel Methodist Church.
He married once, to Lillie Knight, but the union produced no children. Joe never remarried.
He was buried beside his wife in the Old Irish Cemetery. He died on June 4, 1969.