Honoring Colorado’s Black History: Otha P. Rice, Who Brought Juneteenth to Colorado

Mr. Rice as a young man.

Otha Patrick Rice was born in Cleburne, Texas in 1916. Mr. Rice moved to Chicago as a boy, eventually ending up in Denver, graduating from Manual High School in 1934. He settled in the Five Points area of the city, working as a railroad porter and a mail carrier for the United States Post Office before finding his true passion in entrepreneurship, opening up Rice’s Tap Room and Oven on the corner of Five Points’ 28th and Welton Streets. The two-story building that Rice’s Tap Room called home had the restaurant and bar situated on the first floor, with the Simmons Hotel occupying the second. 

Denver’s Five Points: “Harlem of the West”

Rice’s Tap Room and Oven in its heyday.

Rice’s Tap Room and Oven was one of over 50 Black bars and clubs in the neighborhood, and helped Five Points live up to its nickname: “Harlem of the West.” It was an apt comparison; at the time it was the biggest jazz scene and one of the largest Black areas between St. Louis and California. Five Points hosted legendary performers including Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, and Nat King Cole. The Tap Room featured live jazz and blues performances every week, on “Blue Monday”, and each Thursday was “Ladies Night.” Many of the legends that frequented the area spent their nights at the Rossonian Hotel, located at 2642 Welton Street, just a short walk from Rice’s. They played at the hotel’s lounge after their performances at larger Denver hotel venues. Due to racist policies at the time, these hotels would allow them to perform, but not let them stay the night on the property. 

June 19th, 1865

Union General Gordon Granger.

Mr. Rice’s Texas roots gave him knowledge of Juneteenth, or June 19th, 1865; the day that Union General Gordon Granger and his troops came to Galveston, Texas, and announced General Order No. 3, which contained the words, “The people are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” Robert E. Lee had surrendered in Appomattox, Virginia two months prior, but slavery had been largely unaffected in Texas until General Granger arrived. Juneteenth came two-and-a-half years after the emancipation proclamation was signed, and the 250,000 people who had been enslaved in Texas were now free. Celebrations ensued, and the holiday of Juneteenth began. 

A Lasting Tradition, American History

Mr. Rice and his wife, Irene.

Mr. Rice started Colorado’s Juneteenth festivities in Denver in 1953, and with it he brought knowledge of the painful struggles and joyous triumphs of Black Americans. He lived until the age of 76, passing away in 1993 in Denver, the city to which he gave so much. He and his wife Irene are the parents of Norman Rice, the first Black elected mayor of Seattle, WA.

Mr. Rice and other Black Americans persevered and succeeded, passing on American history to Coloradans of all colors. It is work like his and many others that helped get Juneteenth signed into law as a federal holiday by President Joe Biden on June 17th, 2021. We at Visible Network Labs are proud to celebrate Juneteenth, and we honor and thank Mr. Otha P. Rice and his family for their contributions to our state and our Nation.

Pres. Joe Biden signing the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law on June 17th, 2021.                                                        

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About the Author: Will Jacobson

Will Jacobson is the Business Development Specialist on VNL’s Marketing and Communications Team. Originally from New York City, Will loves living in Colorado and all the outdoor life it has to offer. He’s also a pretty big foodie!

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