Union Baptist Cemetery: Vandalized Sacred Grounds
The city of Cincinnati in the free state of Ohio, located in the Northwest Territory bordered Virginia and Kentucky on the south, Indiana on the west and Michigan on the north. Two hundred and fifty miles to the north, Canada offered physical freedom to people of African descent who were in flight from enslavement. Cincinnati, America’s 6th largest city in the early 1800’s geographically appeared to offer an ideal location to Black people seeking to start building new, free lives. However, the dark legacy of race would follow them to church where they were required to sit in the rear of the sanctuary and submit to many of the racist social policies of the South from which they had fled.
In July 1831, 14 Black worshippers left the Enon Baptist Church and formed the African Union Baptist Church which would become known as the Freedom Church. There was no place of respectful burial, interment for Blacks within the city limits. Black people were buried in unmarked graves in the Potters’ Field and in shallow graves along the often-flooded Mill Creek that emptied into the Ohio River sweeping the remains of Black people to the South from which they had fled.
In 1865 the leaders of the Union Baptist Church found and purchased 16 acres of dry ground 5 miles west and 300 feet above the then-city limits and neighborhoods in which most of Black Cincinnati lived. Construction workers, stevedores and day laborers from the Cincinnati waterfront, domestics, and wash women lie among butlers, chauffeurs, and the men who labored in the killing grounds of America’s largest stock yards in the 1800’s.
First Sargent Powhatan Beatty, a member of the Black Brigade, the first African American military unit composed of 700 volunteers who crossed the Ohio River at Cincinnati’s Walnut Street unarmed in 1862 and built many of the rifle pits and forts in Kentucky that protected Cincinnati from Confederate troops who defeated White Union troops at Richmond, Kentucky is interred at Union along with 50 of his companions. Sargent Beatty would receive a Congressional Medal of Honor for leading Black troops at Chapin’s Farm in Virginia as they moved south from Petersburg to Richmond. Peter Fossett, who was enslaved at Monticello, and who after his family purchased his freedom, became a leading caterer in Cincinnati is buried there. Jennie D. Porter, the first Black woman to receive a PhD from the University of Cincinnati and Sarah Fossett who led the campaign to build the Colored Orphanage in the 1830’s are reflective of the little-known rich cross-section of Cincinnati’s Black antebellum population.
Time and vandals have attacked the quiet place of memory and burial of those often-denied full citizenship in Cincinnati, Ohio during their lives. The request for funding for the restoration of the Union Baptist Cemetery will honor and memorialize the rich and diverse history of all of Cincinnati’s citizens. The Union Baptist Church and its Cemetery, for the last 188 years have given religious, cultural and historical guidance to the African American community in Cincinnati. The cemetery was the first place where people of African descent could, and to this day, is one of the few places in this region, that continues to preserve the historic and cultural legacy of 40% of Cincinnati’s population.
Carl B. Westmoreland
Senior Historian, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
Trustee Emeritus, National Trust for Historic Preservation