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

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.  

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


  1. I had previously learned of Sarah Mayrant Fossett during my time at the Museum Center, I had not previously known of her story, and her life prior to her activism was new information to me reading this article. I want to be able to incorporate local history like this in my classroom, as there is so much important Cincinnati history that can be applied to the US History currciulum. I feel that connecting national history to events that happened close to our own communities allows students to connect more directly with those events and it makes them feel more concrete in the minds of students. Fossett’s story is inspiring and shows students that people were fighting and winning against segregation a century before the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s, giving students context for the gradual and regional progress toward total racial desegregation.

  2. This article was an awesome read. Sarah Mayrant Fossett has a story that deserves to be told in history classes everywhere. Her conquest against segregation and slavery, alongside her business accomplishments, marks Sarah Fossett as a powerful figure in not only local history but national as well. This story falls alongside many other accounts of women of color that history books and classes chose to leave in the past. I appreciate that through this article, a step has been made to pass along her story. I hope that the movement away from Euro-centric history in our nation sheds light on other such unsung heroes as well.

  3. Before reading this article, I had no idea who Sarah Fossett was and her many accomplishments during her life. I enjoy learning about local history and with the Cincinnati, Ohio area being a stop on the underground railroad I have always been interested in the people who made it possible. I have visited the National Underground Railroad Museum multiple times and have always wanted to learn more about the people that helped those escaping slavery and how they were able to do it. I am fascinated that Sarah was able to inspire so much change during her time and I think these are the stories that need to be highlighted in classrooms especially when they have happened locally.

  4. I absolutely loved reading this and learning more about Sarah Fossett. Local history is so important in teaching, and this would be a fantastic individual to have a student look into due to Mrs. Fossett’s fascinating background. From hairdresser trainee to an individual who helped the enslaved escape through the Underground railroad, to winning a court case over segregation years before the Civil Rights movement would come into full swing, to owning a successful business during this time is remarkable. This article truly shows how important it is to look into one’s local history as there could be many more individuals like Sarah Fossett who were far beyond their time.

  5. I’ve heard of Sarah Fossett and her husband but did not realize how much they did around the Cincinnati area. Although knowing the impact they played in the Underground Railroad for the Cincinnati area, I wish it would have been discussed more in school growing up. It’s also interesting to learn that even though Ohio was not a slave state, it still had segregation. I do not know why I initially thought only enslaved states had segregation. Learning that Sarah had a similar story to Rosa Parks and won the trial, which led to change in the Cincinnati area, should be discussed more in schools, especially around the Cincinnati area, as local history is essential.

  6. I really enjoyed reading this article. I love learning about local history, especially when it involves such strong females! I never had the pleasure of learning about Sarah Fossett until today. Recently, I got to learn about the importance of the Ohio River in African American culture. Part of this is due to the strong abolitionists and boundary for slavery. I wish this was something I knew about in elementary school. I think that curriculum should involve some of this local history. I am lucky enough to be surrounded by strong history all around. I think the curriculum in schools should try to reflect that some more. I think this could lead to some strong involvement in the community from the students. They will begin to live and love the history around me.

  7. This was an informative read! I had never heard of Sarah Fossett before reading this article even though she lived and died so close to my home. It is interesting to me that she has a similar story to Rosa Parks, yet she was not given the attention from it that Rosa Parks did. As a future educator, this article reminds me of the importance of teaching women’s history to your students. Additionally, teaching about historical figures in the local community is something to keep in mind for future lessons.

  8. Women’s history is vital to teach students. Teaching women’s history helps build diversity and inclusion in the classroom, foster good relationships with students, build community, and shows students that others have overcome hardships in their lives. As educators, it’s easy to choose examples for lessons that are on a larger scale, but there is something unique about choosing someone local in the community. What an excellent article about a local abolitionist! Although the Black Laws and Colored Orphanage Asylum may not still be around, there are many places still within the city that still exist to this day, such as: using the streetcar, First Baptist Church of Cumminsville, and Union Baptist cemetery. This was an excellent example of women’s history.

  9. This was a wonderful read. I did not know that there was such a prominent abolitionist from Cincinnati. As stated in the article, I always assume that famous abolitionists and important civil rights activists are from other states away from the Cincinnati area. But learning about this woman and learning what she did when race relations were virtually non-existent is amazing. I really enjoyed getting to know about Sarah Mayrant Fossett.

  10. This was an interesting read. I had never heard of Sarah Fossett before this article. Which is especially strange considering she was one of the few who made such a notable impact just a mile or two from my home. It is quite crazy to think that she was this close to this area and we have not seen an increase in discussions about her to better connect to the underground railroad and the realities of the awful past more often. It is also notable that she had a similar story to Rosa Parks at one point, which is something that I did not know. I only ever hear about the Rosa Parks debacle and so I had of course assumed it was the only case of its kind.

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