Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Church Determined To Restore Glory To Union Baptist Cemetery

union baptist cemetery
Ronny Salerno
Dale McAllister, administrator of Union Baptist Church, tries to lift a headstone that had been broken off its base and put it back in place. Dozens of headstones have been vandalized in Union Baptist Cemetery.

Union Baptist Cemetery is tucked away in a quiet spot off Cleves-Warsaw Road on the border between Price Hill and Covedale.

It’s the oldest Baptist African American cemetery in Cincinnati, run by the oldest surviving black Baptist congregation in the city.

It’s also a monument to at least 120 free black men. During the Civil War, they took up arms and fought as soldiers against a Confederate army that would have kept their people in bondage.

Inside its gates, lay the remains of hundreds of African American citizens who helped write history.

For decades, the people of Union Baptist Church – a church founded in 1831 by 14 African American Cincinnatians looking for their own religious home – have been struggling to deal with vandalism and the enormous costs of maintaining a cemetery that is the final resting place for many of the present church's members.

But now, they have a dream for the 15-acre, 155-year-old cemetery: restoring it to its rightful condition and making it into a historical site, a destination for the West Siders and others who have lived nearby all their lives and had no idea there was so much history in their midst.

"I grew up a few blocks from here,'' said Hamilton County Commissioner Denise Driehaus. "I never realized what a treasure Union Baptist Cemetery is."

With some prompting from U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown's office, Driehaus and her fellow commissioner, Todd Portune, joined forces with the church to try to raise the money to restore the broken monuments, remove the trees and bushes that are now covering some of the graves, and restore the old block house at the cemetery's center and possibly turn it into a history museum.

union baptist cemetery
Credit Ronny Salerno / WVXU
Some headstones are actually covered up by overgrown trees and bushes. Church officials want to remove them so the headstones can be seen.

Driehaus said she already has a commitment of $10,000 from the Hamilton County Veterans Service Commission, which became interested because of the many Civil War and World War I veterans buried there – including one, Powhatan Beaty, a Civil War soldier who earned the highest honor a soldier can receive – Medal of Honor.

union baptist cemetery
Credit Ronny Salerno / WVXU
The gravesite of Powhatan Beaty, Civil War soldier who earned the nation's highest military commendation, the Medal of Honor. The Cincinnatian is buried with family members near the front of Union Baptist Cemetery.

But it is not nearly enough.

"It is more than we can do alone,'' said Angelita Jones, chair of the church's board of trustees as she walked down the center lane of the 15-acre cemetery, looking at the many broken and time-worn headstones on both sides of the road. "And it hurts our hearts to see it this way."

union baptist cemetery
Credit Ronny Salerno / WVXU
Angelita Jones, chair of the Union Baptist Church board of trustees, and Doreen Dillard, who chairs the cemetery committee, survey the damaged headstones.

Church leaders estimate it would cost at least $40,000 a year for upkeep of the cemetery. It would cost another $150,000 for the restoration of the ground – the fixing of broken monuments, leveling the ground, and removing the trees that obscure graves. It is money the church does not have.

"We do what maintenance we can now from the money in the collection plate on Sundays,'' said Dale McAllister, the church administrator, who spends much time in the cemetery helping out with maintenance. "But when you need $1,000 a week and you have only 100 people in the congregation, that's not going to do it. Plus, the church has a lot of other financial obligations.''

Two years ago, the church started a GoFundMe page, hoping to raise $150,000 for the complete restoration of the cemetery. But, so far, they have raised only a small fraction of that.

Last month, Driehaus and church officials toured the cemetery with a group that included Mayor John Cranley and Carl Westmoreland, a historian with the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

When the church leaders met with Driehaus at the cemetery last week, they talked about drawing up a list of priorities for the project.

One person who was not there, but who is very much interested in the project, is Paul LaRue, a retired high school history teacher from Washington, C.H., Ohio.

The cemetery might have been all but forgotten without help about 10 years ago from an unlikely source – LaRue and his students at a rural high school in Washington Court House.  They took up the cause of documenting the burial places of more than 3,000 African American soldiers from Ohio who fought in the Civil War.

Union Baptist Cemetery is one of many Ohio cemeteries that LaRue and his students visited. They walked among the gravestones to build a database on the African American soldiers buried there.

In the end, his students wrote the Ohio Bicentennial History Marker that stands next to the block house. One side details the history of the cemetery; the other side, the story of the most famous person buried there, Powhatan Beaty.

LaRue came to Cincinnati in early 2018 to be the main speaker at a Union Baptist fundraiser for the cemetery project, although church officials said it did not raise very much money.

One thing LaRue and his students did was bring the story of the cemetery's Medal of Honor recipient to the forefront.

Beaty was born a slave in Virginia and came to Cincinnati at a young age.  He had won his freedom by the time the Civil War began in 1861.

When the Union Army began forming all-black regiments in 1863, Beaty was eager to join. He became a first sergeant in the 5th U.S. Colored Troops. In the September 1864 Battle of Chaffin's Farm in his home state of Virginia, all of the officers of Beaty's company were killed or wounded, so Sgt. LaRue, who was said to be a natural leader, took over command of the company and led them into battle. For that, he earned the Medal of Honor.

While Beaty may be the most famous of the Union soldiers buried at the cemetery, there are others worth noting. Privates Leander Howard and Charles Goff are both interred at Union Baptist Cemetery. They’re combat-wounded veterans of a legendary all-black unit, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. Abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass founded the regiment, which became the subject of Glory, a major motion picture in 1989 for which actor Denzel Washington won an Oscar for best supporting actor.

To LaRue and the students who worked on the project, Union Baptist Cemetery is a true Cincinnati treasure.

"It brought the Civil War, with all the dates and battles, to life for my students; it made it real,'' LaRue said. "These were real men who did amazing things. It is something of which Cincinnati should be proud."

He said recently that he is more than willing to help Union Baptist in its project to restore the cemetery.

Jones - who has a grandmother and other family members buried there - said they will take all the help they can get.

"This is no longer a working cemetery,'' she said. "Now it needs to be a monument to generations of African Americans who built this city."

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.