Preserving the City: Important sites of Black history need attention to keep their stories alive

Cities are engines of our local and national economies, and centers of creativity, culture, and entertainment. But they are under more pressure than ever. This is the latest in a monthly series, The Case for Cities, that will look at how Cincinnati and similar cities can grow by becoming places of choice, as well as models of social justice.

William Beckley was only 18 when he fled his master in Alexandria, Va., where he was working as an unpaid laborer, an indentured servant, as a ship‘s carpenter. It was 1834, more than 30 years before the Civil War would bring legal freedom to Blacks.

Two years later, despite bulletins calling for his apprehension, Beckley would find his way to Cincinnati, where, rather than live in hiding, he became a leader in the city’s African American community. He was a church deacon, and along with two other leading Black figures of the time, sued the city of Cincinnati to protect funding for Black-only schools.

Beckley was only five feet, five inches tall, but despite his short stature (or maybe because of it), he was undoubtedly courageous. He made his home on Third Street, just blocks from the Ohio River. From that humble house, he became a conductor of the Underground Railroad and a collaborator with Levi Coffin, the famed "president" of the network of clandestine routes and safe houses, helping to ferry others who were escaping forced servitude to a better life.

“His residence on Third Street during those troublous times was the home of many an escaping fugitive from his Southern master,” reads his obituary.

Beckley died in 1880 at the age of 63, and his gravesite is now located at a small cemetery off Duck Creek Road in Madisonville. Despite years of weathering the elements, the granite pillar marking his full name and the dates of his birth and death still stands straight, a testament to his fascinating life story.

United American Cemetery, where Beckley’s marker stands, is the final resting place and a memorial to the lives of dozens of people who were leading figures of Cincinnati’s black history. To name just a few:

Jennie Jackson Dehart, who was born in 1852 and had a grandfather who was a servant of President Andrew Jackson. She was an original member of Nashville’s Fisk Jubilee Singers, who toured the country performing and raising money for Fisk Free Colored School, which later became Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville.

Henry Ellis, who died in 1914 and fought in the Civil War with the 54th Massachusetts, the famed “Glory” regiment that opened the way for other Black units to be recruited to fight.

Frank A.B. Hall, the son of former slaves who in 1931 became the first Black elected to Cincinnati City Council, and was also the first Black detective in the Cincinnati Police Department.

Marshall P.H. Jones, who was a leader in Cincinnati’s Black Brigade, the unit of Blacks who were forced into service and played a critical role in warding off the Confederate Army from attacking Cincinnati in 1862.

John Isom Gaines, who in the 1840s pushed for a statewide system of education for Black children and then led the organization that was created to oversee it. His funeral in 1859 is said to have attracted 3,000 people.

Many, many more are buried here at a cemetery that was designed by noted landscape architect Adolph Strauch, who also designed Cincinnati's Spring Grove Cemetery. 

But the stories are at risk of being lost to time, as the cemetery needs care and preservation. Fortunately, the task of preserving the burial ground has been taken over by Union Baptist Church, itself a piece of Cincinnati history as the oldest Black church in town.

Louise Stevenson, a retired Cincinnati educator and a fourth generation member of Union Baptist, leads the effort to restore the historic cemetery. As we take a walking tour of the grounds, she points out the history, as well as the work that needs to be done.

Headstones and monuments need to be righted; the gravel entry road needs an upgrade. Perhaps most pressing is the growth of invasive plants and trees that have already consumed many gravesites and threaten many more.

The story of how the cemetery came to be located in Madisonville is itself a tale. It was originally founded in Avondale in 1848 by a group called the United Colored Cemetery Association. But Avondale in the mid-19th century was a village of predominantly white, wealthy industrialists and merchants. Many of them objected to the cemetery being located in their neighborhood, and they were ultimately successful in persuading city authorities to order it to be moved.

The cemetery association protested, but was forced to move the graves and the markers. The United American Cemetery was dedicated on Memorial Day in 1883. While Strauch's Spring Grove Cemetery is today a National Historic Landmark and enjoys care, attention, visits, and ongoing maintenance, United American Cemetery continues to be threatened by the elements, time, encroaching nature, and neglect.

Church officials also say the cemetery has been damaged by stormwater runoff from Fifth Third Bancorp’s neighboring, massive Madisonville operations center and its parking lots. They’ve sued the bank asking for damages, and the matter is still in court.        

Working to care for the cemetery has been expensive for the church. Cutting and trimming the grass alone at the 12-acre cemetery and another graveyard the church owns, amounts to $40,000 a year, Stevenson says. But the site is important to telling the story of Blacks in Cincinnati, a city that is roughly half Black and half White. 

“I think cemeteries are a place of learning,” Stevenson says. “As an educator, I cannot believe how much I've learned from visiting the cemeteries. And it's a place of peace.”

“Reconnecting ancestors with their families is really important,” she says. “Reconnecting ancestors with the world is important. We need to teach it; we need to remember it. So we can celebrate it.”

Preserving sites of Black history, and simply raising awareness of them, has become more urgent as the pressures of commercial development increase, as the city and the nation wrestle with the legacy of their racial histories, and racial antagonism continues to taint our public life and politics.

“There's a huge inequity of who is represented on our designated historic sites,” says Beth Johnson, executive director of the Cincinnati Preservation Association.  Nationally, less than 2% of the sites on the National Register of Historic Places are sites of Black history. In Cincinnati, the percentage is probably even smaller, Johnson says.

Cincinnati owns a place in the nation’s history of race, beginning with its location on the banks of the Ohio River, seen by escaping slaves as the route to freedom. But the region’s Underground Railroad sites are just a small, albeit significant, part of the story.

“We are really an important place in America in regards to Black history,” Johnson says. “And that story has not been really been told.”  That’s why the preservation association created its excellent Cincinnati Sites and Stories website, which is full of stories, photos, histories, and links to the region’s rich Black history.  It’s a database of more than 100 sites, some of them long gone.

For example, there's the Dunbar neighborhood, a now-vanished settlement on the east edge of Madisonville that dated to 1886 where Black migrants from the South were able to build their own small homes. At its peak in the early to mid-20th century, Dunbar, also known as Corsica Hollow, was the site of about 50 houses, two churches, a small grocery, a hair salon, and a population of 170. But the neighborhood lacked essential city services from the beginning, and its main street didn’t even have a water line until the 1940s.

When Red Bank Expressway was built, about 10 houses were taken by eminent domain and demolished. In the '90s, the city took the rest of the houses by eminent domain, declared them eyesores and demolished them, relocating the people who lived there.

But the now-scattered residents have stayed in touch and are working with City Hall to apply for a history marker. “It would acknowledge this history that was literally paved over,” Johnson says.  “That's a really strong statement of the perseverance of the Black community in Cincinnati, to make sure that their story is being told and being told how they want it to be.”

It would be a small success story in relating the narrative of local Black history. There have been other recent, notable successes.

The Manse Hotel in Walnut Hills was a place of welcome respite for Black travelers, businesspeople, athletes, and entertainers in the ‘30s, 40s, 50s and ‘60s. It earned a spot in “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” the “Green Book” that served as a guide to hotels, restaurants, clubs and other establishments where Blacks were welcomed. It has been preserved as senior citizen housing, with its historical significance noted with a marker. (The longtime owner of the Manse, Horace Sudduth, an influential Cincinnati businessman who died in 1957, is buried in United American Cemetery.) 

The Eckstein School in Glendale was a site for the education of Black students from 1915 to 1958. The Cincinnati Preservation Association purchased the building in 2021, saving it from at least partial demolition. With assistance from the Hamilton County Land Reutilization Corp. (the “Landbank”), plans are in process to transform the site into a cultural arts center.

Eckstein School, GlendaleThe Harriet Beecher Stowe House in Walnut Hills was the 20-year home of the author of the groundbreaking anti-slavery classic “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The site is undergoing a comprehensive restoration partly funded by state grants.

And there are challenges too.

Hoffman School in Evanston is a 101-year-old, grand example of the Progressive Era design in schools done by the famed Hannaford and Sons architects. It is where Evanston’s predominantly Black residents went to school until Cincinnati Public closed it in 2012. A private developer wants to buy the property, demolish the building and build an apartment complex on the site. The Evanston Community Council opposes the demolition, and the preservation association and other groups are working to find alternative uses that would preserve and recognize its historic character.

Historic Hoffman School in Evanston is threatened. Also in Evanston, a community that is 60% Black, St. Mark Church is threatened. Completed in 1916, the church was constructed with Italian marble and German stained glass. Once home to a congregation of 1,200 families, it held its last service in 2010. The property is now for sale.
So often, interest in historic preservation is focused on the architecture and its significance. But it’s the stories associated with these places that matter most, and preserving and commemorating these sites is a way to remember the stories too.

“Everybody's story deserves to be told,” Johnson says. “Saving our Black sites is a way that we can tell that story and also make sure that everyone knows that their history matters.”

It’s how we can continue to be inspired by the courage and leadership of people like William Beckley.

You can read earlier articles in The Case for Cities series here.

You can view and listen to The Case for Cities conversation series here.

The Case for Cities: Cities of Choice are Cities of Justice series is a partnership between UC School of Planning and Soapbox Cincinnati, made possible with support from The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr. Foundation.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.