CINCINNATI — Legislation passed in Congress establishes a new, national program to preserve African American burial sites, which will provide funding for historic Black cemeteries across the nation — including two historic cemeteries in Cincinnati.
The legislation, attached to the Omnibus spending bill and introduced by Senator Sherrod Brown, was inspired by the stories reported on the Union Baptist Cemetery, which has seen its fair share of adversity. The law has been passed by Congress and was signed in December.
It creates a program at the National Park Service for grant opportunities and technical assistance to preserve African American cemeteries across the country.
"These cemeteries don't have large endowments, they were started often by formerly enslaved communities or from freed Black communities," said Beth Johnson, with the Cincinnati Preservation Association.
In April 2020, the National Parks Service announced it would gift Union Baptist Cemetery $400,000. Church officials said they received that money and are currently using it for necessary repairs, though more is still needed.
"We're saying, 'we're doing the best we can, but it is not enough,'" said Louise Stevenson, a Union Baptist Church trustee. "About four years ago we said 'OK, we gotta go a new way.'"
There were few places for black Cincinnatians to bury their dead in 1864, when Union Baptist Cemetery interred its first bodies. Most cemeteries in the United States, in fact, would remain racially segregated — either open to only one race or separating the graves of different-colored people — for the next 90-odd years.
In that time, Union Baptist’s 15 acres became the final resting place of Black Civil War veterans, former slaves and civil rights activists. It houses the remains of Jennie Porter, the first-ever Black person to receive a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati, and Medal of Honor recipient Powhatan Beaty.
The cemetery was vandalized in 2019; headstones were tipped over and graffiti marked the cemetery grounds. Members of the church pay for basic upkeep like grass trimming, but repairing the vandalism has remained out of their financial reach.
A GoFundMe was set up in 2017, with the hopes of collecting $150,000 to repair knocked-over monuments, level uneven ground and cut back the worst of the overgrown greenery — but as of Jan. 17, 2023, the fund had only reached $5,576.
A second cemetery managed by the Union Baptist Church — the United American Cemetery — hit its own roadblock in 2022, when the cemetery's Memorial Day service had to be moved for flooding damage to parts of the cemetery. Church officials alleged the flooding was caused by the construction of a Fifth Third Bank office nearby, specifically complications with the office's water pathways underground caused water to pour into the cemetery.
By June 2022, Union Baptist Church had filed a lawsuit against Fifth Third Bank over the damage the flooding created in the cemetery.
“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.