Women’s History Series: Before There Was Rosa Parks, There Was Sarah Mayrant Fossett

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

Originally published March 21, 2021 as “Sarah Mayrant Fossett: Cincinnati Abolitionist and Business Owner”

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.

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.  

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

7 Comments

  1. After reading this article, I have gained so much insight in who Sarah Fossett was and her accomplishments. When I think of the Civil Rights Movement I think of the 1900s-1960s due to the Harlem renaissance and people like Fannie Lou Hamer. I have not heard of Sarah Fossett before and it is amazing that her action was not only courageous, but resulted in meaningful change. It is astonishing how quick this change was to desegregate the buses with one decision, but in 1955 with the Montgomery Bus Boycott with Rosa Parks took over a year of striking against the bus system to desegregate it.

  2. It is very Interesting that Fossett is not more recognized for her great strides in the abolitionist movement. Is Rosa Parks story more well known because the incident occurred in a southern state. Fossett’s story is so amazing because in her time, Ohio was still segregated. For a women of color to sue and win is an amazing win in American history and should be celebrated more.

  3. It’s interesting that most people only think of Rosa when thinking about racial segregation. Before reading this article, I had never heard of Sarah Mayrant Fossett. I also did not know that Cincinnati was a hotbed for underground railroad activity. It’s very sad to think that we live right next to Cincinnati and are not taught these things, it seems we are only taught a slice of important history on African Americans. After reading this article, I wonder if the reason why the majority of schools only teach about Rosa Parks is because she fought more than Sarah. Also, Rosa parks got arrested, while Sarah pressed charges on the streetcar company.

  4. Sarah Mayrant Fossett seems like an amazing person, I would have loved to meet her. I never considered that there must have been many people who stood up to segregation on public transport before Rosa Parks. I should have but I didn’t. It is so sad to not be able to learn about these people in our history lessons. I grew up in the Cincy area so I would have expected to learn about local heroes who paved the way for cultural movement and justice. Sarah and her husband clearly had a huge impact on our city and I would love to learn more about them.

  5. As someone who loves to read and learn about women’s accomplishments and ways they have changed history is always fascinating. I’ve heard about Sarah Mayrant Fossett but I never knew what she had done to help with the Underground Railroad. Finding out that 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.” I found this super interesting because she was sent to learn how to do hair and then used the money she got from her work to help provide financial support for the Colored Orphanage Asylum. Sarah Mayrant Fossett had such a huge role in history that needs to be more recognized. From helping the runaways and having shelter for them, being in the underground railroad movement, financially supporting Colored Orphanage Asylum, and lastly, she and her husband established the first Baptist Church in Cumminsville, in 1879. All of these Historical Figures need to be known, not the ones we think is enough, they all need to be known.

  6. What an amazing person and great story. I have lived in Northern Kentucky almost my entire life and I had no idea who Sarah Mayrant Fossett was. To win a legal action at that time is unbelievable. Being involved in that many humanitarian efforts is laudable, no matter who you are. Her involvement in the Underground Railroad is really impressive. I cannot imagine the feeling of helping people escape that life and sending them out into their new one. I don’t think there are words to really describe something that profound. It’s a great story and I actually know where that graveyard is, which added a little something extra to the end of the story for me.

  7. Before reading this article I never knew about Sarah Mayrant Fossett and that Cincinnati was a part of the underground railroad. It does make sense though since we are neighbors to two slave states. After doing a bit of research there were actually quite a few prominent conductor houses close to where I work on Hamilton Avenue from which the underground railroad was held which is somewhat close to downtown Cincinnati. Due to the white historical perspective of almost everything, a lot of important people have been left out of history and their deeds to end discrimination and segregation remain hidden for only a select to see and know of unless you do research outside of “normal” history teachings. I find this saddening to think about how many important historical figures have been left out of our history books.

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