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”

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 enjoyed reading this article on Sarah Mayrant Fossett. I was unfamiliar on who she was but I am touched by her perseverance and equality. She fought for her right after getting kicked off of the bus and successfully won! This is inspiring to a lot of people and to me. It shows that not just women but African-Americans can fight for their rights and win!

  2. Before reading this article, I had never heard of Sarah Mayrant Fossett. She had lived a very fascinating life and had many great accomplishments. I thought it was interesting that she studied hair and ended up in Cincinnati because of it. She married a white washer and caterer who was a civil war solider and enslaved my President Jefferson. This did get them the education to learn to read and write, which did help Sarah in her business. Her story with the street car showed her boldness and bravery against such a flawed system at the time and her winning against the company I think shows how much of an impact her actions had made. Her house was used to assist enslaved black to escape to freedom. She also successfully opened a colored orphanage asylum. Saraf Fossett lived a life fighting for what she thought was right, and I can only imagine how many people she truly did help in her time.

  3. Engaging with this article has opened my eyes to Sarah Mayrant Fossett’s very interesting story! I didn’t know who she was before this article, in all honesty she should be included to learn more about in a school setting. Her involvement in the underground railroad has never come up like Levi Coffins name has, at least in my school. I love the fact about her being a hairdresser for some reason, it just makes me think “how many colored hairdressers were there at that point in time?” She seems like a very empowering lady overall.

  4. Before reading this article, I did not know who Sarah Mayrant Fossett was. I found her story to be very interesting and shocking. One thing that I found very surprising was that her second husband started out as a slave and turned into a President. We are taught about Rosa Parks, but as a Northern Kentucky local, I personally have never heard of Fossett before in any setting.

  5. Learning about Sarah Mayrant Fossett is crazy to me for I have lived in Cincinnati for a big part of my life and schooling yet I have never heard that name or story. She was definitely a big deal and made a huge impact but her story is not well known and that is sad. Rosa Parks is important and she should be talked about but so should Sarah. It’s sad that stories of empowering people, especially stories of women get lost and forgotten. I enjoyed this article and got to learn about the inspiring woman who had an impact on Cincinnati. She and her husband also a big part in assisting hundreds of slaves which is incredible. I wish more stories about people in similar situations as Sarah was spoken about.

  6. I actually did not know who Sarah Mayrant Fossett was before reading this article and I’m glad I know now because not only is it empowering to learn about her, but I think she should be talked about more because her story holds an important place in history. I wanted to keep reading more about her especially after reading about how she won after suing the streetcar company even when she was surrounded by hostile circumstances.

  7. Wow before reading this article i had no idea who Sarah Mayrant Fossett was or all the great things she had done for the black community. This article was very educating since i doubt a lot of people know about her. In all my history lessons i’ve never heard her name being mentioned once. I believe most people have heard about Rosa Parks, but I think this article about Fossett brings light to all the great names that we have yet to learn about. Her story is very inspiring and this article has pushed me to do more research about her and others whose contributions to the African American community have been largely overlooked in history. Despite her significant contributions to the African American community, Fossett’s story has largely been forgotten by history. This article serves as a reminder of her legacy and the countless other unsung heroes who fought for civil rights and equality. It is a call to action for us to learn more about these important figures and to ensure that their stories are not lost to time.

  8. Prior to reading this article, I indeed did not know or had ever heard of Sarah Mayrant Fossett. I always enjoy hearing stories like hers because it’s a piece of history that doesn’t get shared often and needs to be heard. Also interesting to hear of a story from a person who lived locally. I found it especially empowering to hear that she sued the streetcar company and won! She stood up against them even with the odds not in her favor. Great read!

  9. Before reading this article, I did not know who Sarah Mayrant Fossett was. I find her story to be fascinating and I found a couple of things surprising. The fact that her second husband was enslaved to a president is shocking. Also, the fact that she sued the streetcar company and played a role in desegregating Cincinnati’s streetcars is something I did not know. We are taught about Rosa Parks, but as a Cincinnati resident, I have never heard of Fossett in the classroom.

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