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Your Link to the Past

Your Link to the Past

Rice, Sergeant John R.

Sergeant RiceIn August 1951 Sioux City became embroiled in a bitter controversy that erupted when officials at Memorial Park Cemetery refused to bury Sergeant John R. Rice, a decorated World War II veteran and Korean War casualty, because of his Native American ancestry. The event provoked public outrage both locally and nationally and eventually required the personal intervention of President Harry Truman. The treatment of Rice tarnished Sioux City's reputation with the stigma of racism and left a wound between the city and local Native American groups for the next fifty years. However, it also created the opportunity for reconciliation between the two sides five decades later and the long overdue redemption of Sergeant Rice and his family.

Rice's story had its beginnings on the battlefields of Korea where he was killed on September 6, 1950 while leading a squad of riflemen against an enemy assault near the village of Tabu-Dong . Nearly a year passed before his body was shipped home to Winnebago, Nebraska in August 1951. Thereafter, Evelyn, who was white, purchased a lot for her husband at Memorial Park Cemetery in Sioux City without incident. During the funeral on August 28 a cemetery official noticed the large number of Native Americans at the service and was subsequently informed that Rice was himself part Native American. At the conclusion of the service Evelyn and the rest of the Rice family were informed of the cemetery's "Caucasians only" policy and were forced to take his body back to Winnebago. Cemetery officials later defended their actions saying, "Private cemeteries have always had a right to be operated for a particular group such as Jewish, Catholic, Lutheran, Negro, Chinese, etc., not because of any prejudice against any race, but because people, like animals, prefer to be with their own kind." They continued to assert that they had a legal obligation to deny Rice's burial or face prosecution from lot owners for breech of contract.

When the local media received word of what had transpired at Memorial Park, the news was quickly put out over the newswire and began making national headlines. Across the country people responded with a combination of disbelief and outrage that an American war hero and his family could be treated in such a fashion. Oliver LaFarge, spokesman for the Association of American Indian Affairs said, "This is horrible. The manifestation of such an inhuman and anti-American attitude brings disgrace upon our country." When President Harry Truman learned about the incident during a press conference the following day he rebuked both the cemetery officials and Sioux City's leaders. He also authorized his military aid Major General Harry Vaughn to send a telegram to Rice's family offering to bury him in Arlington National Cemetery.

In Sioux City the reaction was every bit as negative as it had been on the national level. The Sioux City metropolitan council of the United Packinghouse Workers of America adopted a resolution condemning the actions of the cemetery and declared that the flag should not be flown "in such an un-American place." Though the city council passed a resolution expressing regret for the incident and Mayor Dan Conley traveled to Winnebago and personally apologized at an American Legion meeting there, Evelyn Rice and her family rejected all offers to bury Sergeant Rice locally. He was finally laid to rest with full military honors on September 5, 1951 in Arlington National Cemetery.

The legacy of the Sergeant Rice affair is one of injustice, betrayal, and bitterness, but it is also one of redemption and hope. The event scarred Evelyn Rice and her family permanently and it severely damaged Sioux City's reputation. Yet, despite the damage it caused, Sergeant Rice's ordeal also laid the groundwork for future progress. Memorial Park eventually abolished its race restriction and has been open to all races for years. The incident was a pivotal moment for the Native American civil rights movement because it illuminated the prejudice and injustice faced by Native Americans while emphasizing their positive roll in American society. It also began a process by which the people of Sioux City began to confront the less savory aspects of their past. At a memorial ceremony held in honor of Sergeant Rice and his family in August 2001, Native American rights activist Frank Lamere's read statement spoke poignantly of the Rice affair. He was quoted to have said "We have come far at the expense of Sergeant John Rice and the Gold Star family he left behind. Our respect for one another this day is their legacy and speaks to the possibilities. The bridges we can build tomorrow will be strong if we do not forget that the foundation was laid on a battlefield in Korea."
 
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