Over a century ago, Black soldiers fought for the Union. Today's veterans work to preserve that history
Todd Mayer kneels beside a weathered headstone in Hillcrest Cemetery and pulls at some overgrown weeds near the resting place of Samuel Robinson.
Robinson fought in the 54th regiment in the Civil War, a nearly all-Black group of soldiers who famously challenged the Confederate Army at the second battle of Fort Wagner. It paved the way for Black soldiers to serve throughout the Union Army.
"They were top 5% of the very first Black Americans to fight in the Civil War for the Union — we have one here," Mayer said. "So, we're really honored to have a Glory soldier buried here amongst all these other heroes."
Hillcrest is one of three segregated cemeteries for Black soldiers in the Cincinnati area. It was in use until the 1960s and fell into disrepair. Three volunteer groups — one after the other — have taken over maintenance. Mayer's group, Friends of Hillcrest Cemetery, is a nonprofit currently maintaining it. Military service members are among rows and rows of weather-worn tombstones. Mayer says there are about 4,000 graves on the 15-acre site. More than 1,400 are military veterans.
"So it's pretty significant, pretty historical. It tells a story of America, really. And I always say, you know, these guys kind of had to fight twice," he said. "They had to fight to prove themselves as soldiers because they were looked at differently as Black Americans. And then they had to go fight the country's enemies."
He's volunteered at the cemetery for years and knows a lot of the veterans' stories. He stops by the grave of Lou Jones, who served in the Spanish-American War.
"Lou would have been at San Juan Hill, or in Cuba, next to Teddy Roosevelt and that just amazes me, you know, how close you are to greatness," Mayer said. "First of all, I think all our soldiers are great, but here you are by the future president of the United States of America, you're fighting with him."
Next he points out Zelman Hitchcock, a 24-year-old from North College Hill who was killed early in the Korean War. Mayer read about the funeral in an old newspaper article.
"You can picture an honor guard folding the flag, giving it to the next of kin; 21-gun salute. That's the type of activity that would have happened here and, I mean, it's just so picturesque. If you look out here those are the hills of Kentucky right there. So, it's still probably the same as it was — we're standing here right now — that it was at the time of the funeral on March of 1951," he said.
Roughly 15 volunteers regularly pitch in at the cemetery. They're mostly veterans like Mayer who served active duty in the Army before becoming a reservist and serving in the Gulf War. He says they all feel a sense of duty to honor those who fought before them.
It’s not easy.
A short supply of resources, like money and volunteers, has always hindered maintenance efforts at Hillcrest.
Don Bishop is a Vietnam veteran who has been volunteering at the cemetery the longest, about 13 years.
"We're a nonprofit corporation that took over the cemetery when it was abandoned," he says. "There was no money left for maintenance. There was no money available. So we've had to raise it all. I ran a project this spring to put out 1,400 flags on Memorial Day. And to get the money for the 1,400 flags, I did a GoFundMe project."
The organization spends thousands on lawn maintenance, tree trimming and vaults. About two vaults collapse every year and have to be repaired before wild animals scavenge the area. Each costs about $1,200. Keeping up with the tombstones also takes time and money because only a few chemicals are approved for use, and the organization adheres to the same standards used at Arlington National Cemetery.
"You'll hear horrible, absolute horror stories about historical cemeteries where somebody thinks they're doing good," Mayer said. "And they want to come out and fix these graves and they'll bring a power washer out and apply it to the stone. And basically what they do is they just erase the whole tombstone."
Friends of Hillcrest Cemetery is focused on recruiting more volunteers and finding funding to maintain the cemetery. That includes a walking tour Mayer hopes to have ready by the spring and a local business chipping in to help produce honey on site, away from the graves.
"As we get the word out, maybe as part of it, we do a Facebook event where we come and give the tour, like we just gave you, and at the end of the tour, you have an opportunity to buy Hero Honey, or you know, t-shirts."
Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown introduced legislation to create a national network of African American burial grounds and fund maintenance efforts at cemeteries like Hillcrest. It passed in the Senate at the end of 2020, but is now stuck in the House.