The following was written for What’s Up Newp by Keith Stokes, Vice President of the 1696 Heritage Group. This story was originally published on Feb. 11 ,2021.
A native Newport Black History heroine that is largely unknown in the city of her birth. Harriet Alleyne Rice was born to George and Lucinda Rice in 1866 in Newport. She was a top student at Rogers High School and won first prize for Greek Studies at her graduation exercises, but because the terms of the prize required that it go to a male pupil, she was denied. After high school graduation, she became the first African heritage student to graduate from Wellesley College in 1887, then continued her education by earning medical degrees from the University of Michigan Medical School and the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children.
Being a highly educated woman of color during the late 19th century, she found it nearly impossible to practice medicine at any American hospital, so Dr. Rice joined famed social worker and women’s suffrage leader, Jane Addams, at Hull House in Chicago to provide medical treatment to poor families. Rice would eventually return to Newport and open a medical practice operating out of her family home on Spring Street at the turn of the 20th century. Later she would relocate to Boston living at the Harriet Tubman House and serving on the medical staff at Plymouth Hospital.
When World War I broke out, Dr. Rice decided she must offer her services as a medical doctor to support the troops. However, when she attempted to join the American Red Cross, she was denied admittance as a doctor because of her race. Undeterred, Dr. Rice contacted the French government, who gladly accepted all offers of medical help. Harriet Rice served in French hospitals treating wounded soldiers from January 1915 until just a few days after the Armistice in November 1918. In 1919, the French Government awarded her the Médaille de la Reconnaissance Française, or Medal of French Gratitude, for her treatment of wounded troops.
Dr. Rice died in 1958 and is buried in her family plot in the historic “God’s Little Acre” section within Newport’s Common Burying Ground. Dr. Rice’s extraordinary, but continuously frustrating life as a talented woman of color during a time of great challenges for all African heritage people is best summed up with her response to a 1937 alumni questionnaire from Wellesley College that asked, “Have you any handicap, physical or other which has been a determining factor in your professional activity?” Her reply was direct and representative of all persons of color who dared to achieve and succeed during the turn of 20th century America stating:
“Yes! I am Colored which is worse than any crime in this God blessed Christian country. My country tis of thee.”