Sarah Mayrant Fossett: Cincinnati Abolitionist and Business Owner

Peter and Sarah Fossett were well-known abolitionists who assisted hundreds of enslaved people in escaping to freedom through Cincinnati on the Underground Railroad. Cincinnati Public Library

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

We are going to continue our discussions in honor of Women’s History month by sharing resources and stories about impactful women in history. Often we overlook local history and focus on history in places other than our own communities. There is a lot of history in our own local community of Cincinnati, Ohio where Democracy and Me is housed (Within our local NPR station). In light of this, we are going to repost an article featuring abolitionist and entrepreneur Sarah Mayrant Fossett.

Article originally published March 21, 2021

Introduction
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.


Peter and Sarah Fossett were well-known abolitionists who assisted hundreds
of enslaved people in escaping to freedom through Cincinnati on the
Underground Railroad. Cincinnati Public Library.

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.  

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

If you would like to discuss the topic further or for more resources contact the author at childsd1@nku.edu.


10 Comments

  1. This was a wonderful article that included so much information about the life of Sarah Fossett and her husband. It is true that we often overlook the history that is in our own backyard. I find it so interesting that Sarah was able to learn the trade of hairdressing in New Orleans. It seems like she was a very independent woman who understood the value of learning. I also like how this article made the between Sarah and Rosa Parks. It is women like Sarah who paved the way for women like Rosa.

  2. I had never heard of Sarah Mayrant Fosset until this article. Her story is one that is inspiring, especially when we consider the time period she lived in. I found it sad that not many of us knew about her before reading this article and believe that schools (at least those of Cincinnati) should teach her story alongside Luther and Park’s. It was cool to see how involved she was in her community and how Rosa Parks was actually not the first person to refuse. I also found it a cool detain that her husband was a slave under Jefferson. This article was amazing and I hope this woman starts getting the attention/remembrance she is due.

  3. I have never heard of the name Sarah Maryann Fossett and I am disappointed that I have not until now. Especially knowing she lived so close to me. I think her story is so inspiring and one that should be known more. She was able to accomplish a lot in her life as a young African American woman. These things include a successful hairdresser, assisting slaves escape to freedom, and elected as a manager at Cincinnati’s Colored Orphanage Asylum. This is really inspiring to me, knowing all she accomplished but still sad to see that her name isn’t more known. Especially since she had a similar incident to Rosa Parks when she was refused a seat on a Cincinnati streetcar but ending up suing the company and winning as the streetcars became desegregated. 

  4. Before reading this article, I’ve never heard of Fossett. The school system doesn’t teach us about all the the Civil Right figures. But also, I’m not from Cincinnati. Meaning, I don’t know if the Cincinnati school systems would’ve talked about Fossett. I think it’s cool how her husband taught her how to read.

  5. Where you noted that we often overlook local history, is very true point raised because before reading this article I have not heard of Sarah Mayrant Fosset, if I am being honest. However, after reading this I am glad that I now do. Mrs. Fossett was an extraordinary woman who deserves more recognition, she sued the streetcar company due to her standing up for her rights, in a way that Rosa Parks will later do. The fact that she won the sue makes her story even that much better.

  6. I did not know the story of Sarah Mayrant Fossett. I found it really interesting to read about her life and accomplishments. I found it interesting that her and her husband played such a big role in the underground railroad. That is amazing that they got the chance to help change and touch so many lives by risking their own. I like to learn about local history, and this was really neat especially since it’s a woman they helped make a difference!

  7. It is interesting how “modern” historical figures such as Rosa Parks can resemble a more historic one such as Sarah Fosset. Also the fact that she specialized in French hairstyles is a completely unique sort of trade. I suspected that this story may have been another common one of those who lived on a slave plantation, however this sheds life on what life was like on the other side of the underground railroad. It is remarkable that she as black woman also owned some sort of business in the 19th century.

  8. I’ve never heard the name Sarah Mayrant Fossett nor anything about this woman. I think this woman is an amazing person! She was a well known hairdresser and a “well-known abolitionists who assisted hundreds of enslaved people in escaping to freedom through Cincinnati on the Underground Railroad.” When teachers talk about black history month, it is usually people who are from a different country or state. I think this article would be great to gain student interest not only in women’s history month, but also in Cincinnati.

  9. This article was very eye-opening. I would have never thought of someone so prominent in Woman’s history living so close to where I live. I love how she not only was able to live a free life but that she was able to help other enslaved people find freedom through the Underground Railroad. I love the connection to Rosa Parks as well. It is amazing to see that Rosa Parks was not the first to stand up for civil rights. It was also amazing to see her giving to the Orphanage, and the her husband and her establishing the church!!

  10. This was a wonderful read! I had never heard of Fossett before this article. It is very unfortunate to say that given she is a local woman and she had such an impact on Cincinnati during her time. The fact that she faced segregation, fought back and won during this time is amazing. Her story needs to be shared much more. Especially since she also helped so many black people through the Underground Railroad which is a major destination/attraction here in Cincy. Thank you for bringing her story to us!

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