Mattie Rice, who pushed for marker honoring Union County slaves, dies at 91

Mattie Rice, a slave’s daughter who urged Union County to erect a marker honoring the Confederate Army service of her father and other slaves, died Monday in High Point, her family said. She was 91.

The Union County native is believed to be among the last people in the state with a parent who was enslaved, said Earl Ijames, a curator at the North Carolina Museum of History.

“Her fortitude and her dignity was evident from the first moment I met her,” said Ijames, who also had supported the marker drive. He praised Rice’s persistence over the years in highlighting her family background, work that illuminated a long-forgotten chapter of state history.

In December 2012, Rice helped dedicate the marker in Monroe to her father and nine other Union County men. Nine of the men were slaves, and one was a free black man, all of whom served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War then received tiny state pensions for their service late in life.

The granite marker at the Old County Courthouse is thought to be the first of its kind in the nation to honor black men who worked, willingly or not, for the Confederacy. The marker was placed in front of a century-old Civil War monument from the Jim Crow era.

Rice’s father, Wary Clyburn, died in 1930 at about age 90 when his daughter was 8.

During the war, he ran away from his plantation in South Carolina to join his master’s son, working as his bodyguard and cook. He spoke proudly about risking his life to save the son, dragging him to safety after he had been wounded in battle, Rice recalled.

Clyburn settled in Monroe after the war and is buried in a local cemetery.

There is no way to know how many of the Union County men willingly followed their owners into war and how many were forced into service. Historians have said virtually no black men fought in battle for the Confederacy, although slave labor was used for support and logistical work.

The marker was not without controversy, and to some historians, it sparked questions about misguidedly elevating the role of “black Confederates” while downplaying the central role that slavery occupied in the Civil War.

Rice ignored such criticism and spent decades pursuing her unusual family history.

Before the 2012 ceremony, she told the Observer, “A lot of people ask me if I’m angry. What do I have to be angry about? There’s been slavery since the beginning of time. I’m not bitter about it, and I do not think my father would be bitter about it.”

Tony Way, a local amateur historian and Sons of Confederate Veterans member, had led the push for the marker. He said he was glad that Rice had lived long enough to see the marker become reality.

Rice, who lived in Archdale, had congestive heart failure and died two weeks before her 92nd birthday, daughter Ruth Young said. Funeral arrangements are incomplete.

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