5 African Americans who helped shape Cincinnati
By Gina Ruffin Moore, author of "Cincinnati: Black America Series," Arcadia Publishing (2007).
"If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a photographer is worth a million!" That’s a quote from modern-day philosopher Tupac Shakur. Cincinnati's photographic memory sometimes fades when it comes to the rich heritage of its African American community.
Here are five African Americans who left their mark in Cincinnati but are probably unknown to most of us today:
Sarah Mayrant Fossett (1826-1906) tried to get on a Cincinnati streetcar in 1860. The conductor would not let her aboard. After he dragged her for more than a block, she sued the streetcar company – and won. Her decision made it possible for African American women to ride streetcars in Cincinnati. African American men still were not allowed to ride because they were viewed as the stronger sex and more capable of walking. This speaks to the power of well-coiffed women. Little did the conductor know that Fossett was both married to a conductor for the Underground Railroad and also the hairdresser to the rich and famous in the Queen City. Abolitionists citywide came to Fossett's defense, but so did white women unwilling to lose access to their stylist.
Sarah's husband, Peter Farley Fossett (1815-1901), a former slave of President Thomas Jefferson, was an entrepreneur, pastor and part of the Black Brigade, a group of black soldiers. The Fossetts helped hundreds of slaves escape to freedom by way of Cincinnati and were co-founders of the First Baptist Church of Cumminsville. In September 1862, when the Confederate Army was heading north to Cincinnati from Lexington, Kentucky, all men were ordered to volunteer to defend the city. While free African Americans were willing to serve, many Union soldiers balked at the idea of serving side by side with black soldiers. Without warning, more than 400 African American men were rounded up and held in a holding pen on Plum Street. They were marched across the river and forced to build fortifications in Northern Kentucky. Abolitionists citywide complained and the men were released. Then, they voluntarily answered the call to build fortifications to protect the city, causing the enemy to retreat. Many of those soldiers, known as the Black Brigade, later enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, led by Robert Gould Shaw. There’s a monument to the Black Brigade in Smale Riverfront Park.
The concept of an integrated workplace was somewhat foreign to employees in the mid-1800s in Cincinnati – unless you worked for Henry Boyd (1802-1886). Boyd owned a four-building complex at Broadway and Eighth Street. He hired 50 employees of any race to work side-by-side in his bed-making factory. Some were so opposed to his hiring practices that they burned down his factory three times, but he kept rebuilding. In 1862, after the third fire, Boyd could not get insurance. The Boyd canopy beds are coveted antiques. A Boyd bed on display at the Golden Lamb Inn in Lebanon has been designated one of Ohio’s 100 most valued antiques. Boyd’s expertise expanded beyond the bed-making business. In 1832, he also offered a solution to the cholera epidemic, warning that the source of cholera was waterborne and preventable by boiling all drinking water. His views were shared in a local newspaper but ignored. Boyd is buried in an unmarked grave at Spring Grove Cemetery.
Peter H. Clark (1829-1925) was one of Ohio’s most prominent activists in the African American struggle for full citizenship. In 1883, he had so much influence on Cincinnati's African American community that he helped elect a Democratic governor in a Republican stronghold. That’s after Gov. George Hoadly promised to repeal some of Ohio’s notorious Black Laws. Both the Republican and Democratic parties promised to repeal the laws for 15 years, but in 1882 Clark joined the Democratic Party and supported the 1883 gubernatorial campaign of Hoadly, his friend and fellow Unitarian church member. Hoadly also promised to appoint African Americans to political posts. Clark was credited by both parties with swinging enough African American votes to the Democrats to make sure Hoadly beat Republican Joseph Foraker. Hoadly kept his promises, securing the repeal of most of the Black Laws early in his term and naming prominent African Americans to a number of positions. That included Clark's appointment as the first African American trustee of the Ohio State University. The major unresolved issue was a proposal for mixed-race schools. Clark became principal of Gaines High School and the first teacher hired by the integrated school system. In 1886, the Cincinnati School Board fired him for his political views, claiming he was a socialist. CPS’s Clark Montessori High School is named after none other than Peter H. Clark.
Clark, along with James Pressley Ball (1825-1904), was an abolitionist. Ball was also an internationally known photographer specializing in daguerreotypist photography. In 1855, he created a 600-foot exhibit called the "Mammoth Pictorial Tour of the US with Views on African Slave Trade" and a brochure by the same title. Tourists from around the nation viewed the painting/display and gained a better understanding of African American history. The exhibit was also featured at the Ohio State Fair. In 1860, a tornado destroyed his studio, the Ball and Thomas Gallery, which he owned with his brother-in-law. Some of the subjects of his photography include Queen Victoria, Jenny Lind, Charles Dickens, Ulysses S. Grant and Frederick Douglass. Ball, along with artist Robert S. Duncanson, helped maintain Cincinnati as an artistic hub. His historic photographs are worth millions and are helping our photographic memories get sharper and sharper.