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.
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.