The Rev. John Brice Officiating

athens overview wide
View of Athens, Tennessee, early 1920s
“Lewis Cleage of Athens, Tenn. who has been with his son, Jacob Cleage, of this city, for nearly two years, died Thursday afternoon at the city hospital, where he was taken Wednesday.  The funeral services were conducted today at the home of his daughter, Mrs. Josie Cleage 1323 Massachusetts avenue at 2 o’clock.  The Rev. John Brice officiating.  Besides a daughter, Mr. Cleage is survived by four sons, Dr. Albert Cleage of Detroit, Henry and Jacob Cleage of this city and Edward Cleage of Athens, Tenn.  The body will be taken to Athens for burial.”
Louis Cleage’s unmarked grave

I recently received this obituary for my great grandfather Louis Cleage.  I noticed several things.  First, he was not taken to Athens for burial.  He is buried in an unmarked grave in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis pictured here.  He lived in Indianapolis for two years before his death.  And I wondered, who was Rev. John Brice?  Had he been pastor at Witherspoon United Presbyterian, the Cleages church?  Was he from their hometown, Athens, Tennessee?  Here is what I learned.

Rev John Brice.
Rev John Brice.

John Brice was born in 1878 in Knox County Tennessee the 7th of the nine children of Hampton and Harriett Brice.  Exceptional for these times they owned their own land. Although they were illiterate, all of their children attended school and learned to read and write.  John attended Knoxville College Normal, graduating in 1899.  He finished the Baccalaureate program in 1904 and graduated from Knoxville Seminary in 1909. He met his wife Ella Hawkins there.  My grandfather, Albert B. Cleage Sr. attended Knoxville College during this same time, graduating in 1906.

In 1910 Rev. John Brice was pastor of First United Presbyterian Church in Athens, Tennessee.  He roomed one house over from my great grandmother Celia Rice Cleage Sherman and her family, which included her second husband Roger Sherman (who is listed as an architect for First United Presbyterian Church), son Edward and his wife and two children, along with eight year old grandson Richard.  My grandfather, his two other brothers and his sister and her family were already living in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Brice wasn’t pastor in Athens very long. By 1912 he was married and pastor of Witherspoon United Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.  My grandparents and my grandfather’s brothers were some of the founders of Witherspoon. Brice’s three youngest children were born in Indianapolis.

He served as a chaplain in France during WW 1. Following the war he taught and pastored in Alcoa, Tennessee.  Alcoa was a company town set up by Alcoa Aluminum.  They used cheap southern labor, black and white.  When things fell apart as far as the vision that some of the professional black people on staff had hoped to implement, Brice moved to North Carolina to teach and work at the Palmer Memorial Institute, founded and run by his wife’s niece, Charlotte Hawkins.

Charlotte Hawkins Brown & Palmer Memorial Institute: What One Young African Could Do  By Charles Weldon Wadelington, Richard F. Knapp

Rev. Brice died around 1960. A long time family friend and DNA relative has alerted me to John Brice’s death certificate on It also turns out that my dna cousin is related to John Brice’s grandson, Guion Stewart Bluford Jr.

John Brice death record

Of his four children, three had careers in music.  The youngest, Carol Brice had a career in opera.  Johnathan and Eugene often accompanied her on the piano and also had careers of their own. Daughter Lolita Brice was an educator and married engineer Guion Stewart Bluford Sr.  Their youngest son was Guion Stewart Bluford Jr, who was the first black astronaut, in spite of his high school counselor in the 1960s advising him to take up a trade because he wasn’t college material.

15 thoughts on “The Rev. John Brice Officiating

  1. Interesting history and connections between the families in different locations. Sometimes you can learn a lot by starting with just one name.

  2. An amazing story of a family’s success from farmers to the ministry and astronauts and opera singers!

  3. wow! way to piece it all together. you amaze me!!! very interesting engineers, astronauts, opera singers… great finds.

  4. There are so many interesting threads in your family quilt. Rev. Brice seems like a man who was never idle. Carol Brice had a wonderful contralto voice well suited for Mahler.

  5. Another interesting post Kris. Rev. John Brice’s death certificate is available to view online at, he died in Philadelphia, PA on June 4, 1960.

    I feel like everyone is connected; Guion Stewart Bluford Jr, is married to my cousin, Linda Tull.

    1. Alexandra, that is amazing! and thank you for the info on the death certificate, I kept looking for North Carolina and that brings his story to a close.

      And since we are related in some way that we have yet to discover, maybe I’m related to Linda too and so, one of my very distant cousins came into this story too.

  6. You are very good at finding your family history and that of connected people. Great that there are places like Athens in Tennessee and Naples in Florida, just to name two examples.

  7. Wonderful post. What an amazing and interesting history of the two families. Loved what you did in showing the connections between the families. The Brice family’s history/story was incredible.

  8. Kristin, a fine piece of research. Amazing where an obit and a little digging (no pun intended) will take a family historian.

  9. Once again, you’re an inspiration. The article in Ebony is fascinating. What an amazing family.

  10. I have no relatives, but a love of chasing various links from your story, so I had to find what Palmer School was all about…so glad it existed and there are museums now.

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