Part Three (Women’s History Series)- Sarah Mayrant Fossett: Cincinnati Abolitionist and Business Owner

Sarah Mayrant Fossett -

Dr. David J. Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

I bet you do not know the story of Sarah Mayrant Fossett? Well maybe you have heard of her, but before I began conducting research for this article I did not know much about her. So, continuing our series on women’s history in my third installation, I would like to highlight the legacy of Cincinnatian Sarah Mayrant Fossett (1826-1906).

Often when one thinks about famous and influential people they think of individuals outside of their hometown. I am writing this article from Cincinnati, Ohio, where our local NPR station (WVXU) is headquartered. Likewise Sarah Mayrant Fossett was a prominent African American woman that lived in Cincinnati, Ohio in the latter half of her life until her death in the early twentieth century. 

She was born Sarah Mayrant in Charleston, South Carolina, to Rufus and Judith on June 26, 1826. In her youth, she was sent to New Orleans to study under a French hair specialist, and trained in the “art of hair and scalp treatment and hair goods manufacturing and application.” In the 1840s, prominent Cincinnatian Abraham Evan Gwynne (Father of socialite Alice Claypoole Gwynn Vanderbilt) brought Sarah to Cincinnati where she became quite successful as a hairdresser. At some point after moving to Cincinnati she married her first husband, who died in 1854 when Sarah was 28-years old. She remarried a 39-year old white washer and caterer, the Reverend Peter Fossett, who had been a prominent Civil War soldier and was formerly enslaved by President Thomas Jefferson. Reverend Foster learned to read and write on the Jefferson plantation and later taught Sarah, which no doubt helped her tremendously in building her business.

An Early Rosa Parks

Long before Rosa Parks took her famous bus ride in 1955 rejecting the order of bus driver James F. Blake’s “to vacate a row of four seats in the ‘colored’ section in favor of a white passenger, once the white section was filled,” Sarah Fossett had a similar incident in the nineteenth century. Segregated public facilities did not just exist in the south. In Ohio, racial segregation governed much of the lives of African Americans and was reinforced by legislation known as Black laws. Sarah Fossett came up against the separate and unequal system when she boarded a Cincinnati streetcar in 1859 and a white conductor refused to let her ride. She was then forcibly removed. Fossett sued the streetcar company and won and as a result the streetcars in Cincinnati became desegregated.

Underground Railroad Activity
The city of Cincinnati was a hotbed for Underground Railroad activity, due to its close proximity to Kentucky (A slave state). Fossett and her husband were closely associated with Levi Coffin and others in the Underground Railroad movement. Peter Fossett served as one of Coffin’s lieutenants. Sarah and Peter often used their tenement apartment to house runaways, being a stop before sending them to the Coffin home. It is estimated that Sarah and her husband assisted hundreds of enslaved blacks in escaping to freedom. Along with their bold Underground Railroad activity, the Fossetts were known locally and nationanally as outspoken proponents of the abolitionist movement. 

Other Accomplishments
Among other accomplishments Sarah Fossett provided financial support to Cincinnati’s Colored Orphanage Asylum from the success of her hairdressing business. Fossett eventually began serving on the board of the Colored Orphan Asylum, and was elected as manager, even raising enough money for a new building.

Prominent members of the African American community locally and nationally, Sarah Fossett and her husband established the First Baptist Church of Cumminsville in 1879. The couple paid off the church’s debt using funds from their secular employment, refusing a salary from the church. The couple is buried at the famed Union Baptist Cemetery in the Price Hill neighborhood of Cincinnati.  

Black Laws
Cincinnati Ohio History
Levi Coffin- Biography
Queens of Cincinnati- Sarah Mayrant Walker Fossett
Ohio History Central
Vintage Cincinnati- Sarah Mayrant Fossett 


  1. I really enjoyed reading about Sarah Mayrant. As you pointed out in the article, we often look outside of our own hometown or city to look for famous people or people of importance. I think having students learn about people that actually lived around where they live now grabs their attention even more and makes them more invested in what their learning. I think it also shows them that it doesn’t matter where you live, anyone can make a difference. Sarah’s story is very inspiring and is one that should be shared more often. When I am a teacher, I plan to do that.

  2. Before reading this, I had no clue that Sarah Fossett did so much to contribute to Cincinnati’s history. Reading about all that Sarah did was quite amazing, and something that I am fortunate to learn about. Sarah’s story is definitely something that I would love to bring into my classroom as a future educator, she defied so many odd’s and was able to contribute so much and help so many people. I also love the fact that there are resources that I can use that are attached to this article. A great read!

  3. It’s nice to read about a piece of history that is local to the area. Sarah believed in justice for herself and stood up when the odds were against. Knowing about the past with African Americans and Caucasian people, Sarah was extremely brave for risking her life to help others. I wish that more people knew about her and her accomplishments with helping men and women who were enslaved, live a better life. What I thought was interesting was how Sarah and her husband also established the first Baptist church in Cumminsville. Owning property can be very expensive but the couple was able to pay off the church using their salaries. This shows their devotion to God and that they remain faithful during a troubling time.

  4. I really enjoyed reading about Sarah Fossett. I think her story is incredible, and that she deserves to be as well known as other women like Rosa Parks. The fact that she had the courage to stand up for herself and won her case- she was the reason that streetcars were desegregated. I think that is incredible. Not only that, but she aided runaway slaves during the underground railroad, that takes a huge amount of courage too. I think it is really cool that she was local, and teaching about her could be even more interesting to students because of that. She was an incredible woman, I really enjoyed reading about her.

  5. Thank you for writing about Ms. Fossett, I found her story to be very interesting! It makes me sad that I have never heard of this courageous woman. Her story is one that should be familiar with all Cincinnatians, myself included. I would be really curious to know more about where her business was located and her descendants. I also am curious if there is anything named after her or her husband, their names are not familiar to me and I find that surprising that they haven’t been celebrated properly.

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