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Cincinnati's Union Baptist Church files lawsuit against 5/3 Bank, accusing cemetery desecration

United American Cemetery.jpg
United American Cemetery headstones.png
Posted at 9:44 PM, Jun 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-07 23:23:14-04

CINCINNATI — One of the city's oldest African-American Baptist churches in Cincinnati is taking on a major corporation.

Union Baptist Church filed a lawsuit against Fifth-Third Bank Thursday, accusing it of destroying a historic cemetery located in Madisonville.

Standing water covers the main roadway through the cemetery and toppled headstones are visible among graves on sloping hillsides.

“You can see how it's deteriorating clearly. Every time it rains, a little bit more of it washes away," attorney for Union Baptist Church John Stillpass said. "It’s just appalling is the only word. It’s just an outrageous, it's just an outrageous thing the community has to suffer the loss of this site."

Stillpass said Fifth-Third Bank built an office above the United American Cemetery in 2003 and the draining system it chose pushes water into the cemetery -- displacing headstones and washing away graves. He said he's been trying to get the bank to do something about it for more than two years.

He filed a lawsuit Thursday writing it is “...causing unforgivable dishonor and insult to the departed.”

The lawsuit states the United American Cemetery is the oldest African-American burial site in the state. The document also said that the site is the resting place of many prominent African Americans who were important to the historical development of the city of Cincinnati including leaders of the Underground Railroad, writers, politicians, business people, artists, civil rights leaders and Civil War veterans. The earliest legible tombstone was placed in 1832.

Prominent persons buried there include:

  • William H. Beckley
  • John Isom Gaine
  • Priscilla Jane Thompson
  • Frank A.B. Hall
  • Horace Suddeth
  • Jennie Jackson DeHart
  • Isaac Nelson Ross
  • Irvine Penn
  • Phoebe Boots Allen
  • Hentry Ellis
  • Charles H. Thompson

The lawsuit accuses the bank of trespassing, causing a nuisance, desecration and abuse of a corpse. The church wants the bank to fix the problem and pay for restoration of the cemetery.
Complaint Union Baptist vs Fifth Third Bank by WCPO 9 News on Scribd

The bank sent WCPO 9 renderings of a project it plans to carry out to fix the issue.
Renderings of 5/3 Drainage Plan for Madisonville Facility by WCPO 9 News on Scribd

5/3 officials also sent this letter it sent to the cemetery owners Friday, stating it made an offer to help restoration:

5/3 Bank letter to Union Baptist Church Page 1
5/3 Bank letter to Union Baptist Church page 2

The bank says in the letter that engineering contractors have been communicating with the City of Cincinnati, the Metropolitan Sewer District and other local officials for preliminary approval of a plan to fix the issue. It will cost of more than $550,000 to complete this work expeditiously. The banks says it will reroute three water outlets, one existed before the bank's development. The design ties those into the city storm water system.

In addition to this engineering work, Fifth Third says it made a significant financial offer to the United American Cemetery that they believe is very reasonable.

The church’s attorney said due to a confidentiality agreement, he cannot reveal how much the bank offered the church but said it was less than half the estimated repair cost.

“We certainly have plans of what this cemetery can be if we can have the water redirected and we can get the funding to restore it to what it should be,” Stillpass said.