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New initiative aims to restore dignity to Cincinnati's overgrown Potter's Field cemetery

'This really is the definition of disrespect'
This photo shows one of the hundreds of grave markers obscured by weeds and overgrowth at Cincinnati's Potter's Field cemetery in West Price Hill. The small marker includes the number 3967. The name Gohagen, V. is below the number.
Posted at 6:00 AM, Jul 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-09 22:52:52-04

CINCINNATI — This is a story about what the living owe the dead and – more specifically – what Cincinnati owes the thousands of people buried in an overgrown portion of West Price Hill called Potter’s Field.

“They’re the forgotten people,” said Mary Jo Bazeley, a volunteer who has been working for 20 years to clean up edges of the 26-acre site.

“I was raised in the country, in Clermont County, and people that have preceded us are treated with great respect,” she said. “And when you come here – these are people, these are human beings – and yet, I don’t feel that they are treated with the same respect.”

A new effort called the Potter’s Field Initiative aims to change that.

The initiative is working to unite community members, nonprofit organizations, local universities and government agencies behind the goal of making the abandoned cemetery a dignified resting place for the estimated 20,000 people interred there.

Michael Morgan is pictured here standing in the overgrown Potter's Field cemetery. He is wearing a black Ohio University baseball cap and a black shirt.
Michael Morgan

“This isn’t any way to treat your fellow human beings,” said Michael Morgan, who started a GoFundMe campaign to help finance the initiative’s work. “I don’t know these people. They aren’t my relatives. But I think that is it just a core, basic social contract that we all owe each other, you know, that we recognize our fellow humans as fellow humans and treat them accordingly.”

Those involved in the work acknowledge there’s a long way to go to get to that point.

They are, after all, trying to combat decades of neglect, and they’re taking up a cause that has failed countless times since the founding of Potter’s Field in 1849.

But Morgan said the momentum feels different this time.

And the coronavirus pandemic might turn out to be the reminder of our shared humanity that helps the effort succeed, said Garrett Dienno, a land manager with the Cincinnati Park Board’s division of natural resources.

“I think there’s some resonance in the fact that this is really coming to a head now at this time in this age,” Dienno said. “Maybe we see a little bit of our own times reflected in the state of affairs at Potter’s Field.”

This aerial photo of Potter's Field in West Price Hill shows the cemetery has become overgrown by honeysuckle and other invasive species.
Aerial view of Potter's Field in West Price Hill.

That state of affairs is a mess, but it hasn’t always been that way.

Decades of neglect and as many as 20,000 graves

Potter’s Field in West Price Hill dates to 1849.

The name refers to a story in the Bible and is used widely for any municipally owned cemetery for people who can’t afford a private burial. Cincinnati had other locations for its Potter’s Field earlier in its history, Morgan said, near Music Hall and on the land near Union Terminal.

But as those areas became more populated, elected officials sought a location outside the city’s center and bought hilly acreage for the graveyard in what would become West Price Hill.

It’s unclear how many people’s remains are located on the site. A historical marker at the cemetery says between 8,500 and 10,000 people are buried there, mostly in unmarked graves. But Bazeley and Morgan say that number is far too low.

This closeup of a sign at the entrance of Potter's Field has the year 1849 for when the cemetery was founded and explains that it is a public burial place for those who have no one to provide for their burial.
This sign stands at the entrance to Potter's Field.

The first burial was recorded in 1852. By 1895, 9,722 people had been buried there, according to an article from Jan. 13, 1895, in The Cincinnati Tribune.

Hamilton County continued to bury people who were poor – and those who were unidentified at the time they died – in Potter’s Field until 1981.

Morgan estimates there could be 20,000 or more people buried there in all.

Many died at the former Dunham Hospital – now the site of Dunham Recreation Facility – where thousands of people went to be treated for tuberculosis and other infectious diseases.

“Potter’s Fields often have this kind of association with criminals – that you earned your way into a Potter’s Field with poor behavior or something,” Morgan said. “That’s not true, particularly not with this one. Most of our worst criminals in Cincinnati actually got proper burials somewhere.”

Only those buried for four years during the 1960s have grave markers, Morgan said, because a one-term Hamilton County commissioner insisted upon it.

This photo shows a copy of a handwritten burial record for Potter's Field. The deceased person is listed as Infant Rose and was buried June 23, 1970 in grave number 4248.
Cincinnati Parks has copies of handwritten burial records for Potter's Field, like this one for a baby named Rose.

A fire destroyed some burial records, Morgan said, and volunteers are compiling others to learn as much as they can about the people interred there.

Some of the money that Morgan is working to raise through the GoFundMe campaign would be used to update the volunteers’ computer equipment so they can complete the work more efficiently and effectively, he said.

‘It’s not a proud history’

Other efforts are underway, too.

An AmeriCorps volunteer for the city of Cincinnati began the process of seeking a national historic designation for Potter’s Field and received an encouraging response from Ohio’s State Historic Preservation Office.

Students in landscape architecture and horticulture and planning classes at the University of Cincinnati focused their work on Potter’s Field last school year, said Morgan, who helped teach the classes with Virginia Russell, a professor and landscape architect, and David Gamstetter, an adjunct professor at UC and the retired head of urban forestry for Cincinnati Parks.

This poster shows some of the ideas that University of Cincinnati students developed for Potter's Field. It includes a map of the site, photos and text to explain the students' concepts.
This poster shows some of the ideas that University of Cincinnati students developed for Potter's Field.

The students developed designs for how the land could be cared for properly and how Potter’s Field could be used to connect Rapid Run Park and Dunham Recreation Center, an idea that the nonprofit organization Price Hill Will and nearby residents support.

“I think there’s a lot of potential there,” Gamstetter said. “And I think there would be quite a bit of community interest when people understand exactly its history and what it’s all about.”

There are small state grants that could help with some initial clean-up, Morgan said, but most need matching dollars. The GoFundMe would provide money for that, too, he said.

But the major cleanup of Potter’s Field won’t be easy – or cheap.

When Hamilton County stopped burying people there in 1981, it ceded control and maintenance of the property to the city of Cincinnati, which owns the land.

City officials fired the caretaker who had lived on the property, citing budget constraints, and newspaper accounts from the time indicate the grass was mowed once after that in 1982.

Internal memos from the 1980s show city leaders made the Park Board “temporarily” responsible for Potter’s Field but didn’t allocate additional funds to maintain the property.

“It’s not a proud history,” Morgan said.

This copy of a Cincinnati Post newspaper story from 1982 discusses the lack of maintenance at Potter's Field. The headline for the article is: Grave care denied.
This copy of a Cincinnati Post newspaper story from 1982 discusses the lack of maintenance at Potter's Field.

The property is overgrown with honeysuckle and other invasive species that make it difficult – if not impossible – to find the grave markers that do exist.

The honeysuckle, weeds and vines must be removed by hand, Dienno said, because large equipment could damage the graves.

The Park Board hasn’t estimated the total cost of a cleanup, but he said it typically costs about $1,300 per acre for invasive species removal and management. That would amount to $33,800 for the 26-acre site, and that’s only part of the work that needs to be completed.

“We’re still kind of in those initial stages of really developing a management plan for the site,” Dienno said. “We really want to make sure we have a clear goal and a clear process in mind before we begin, so that way we implement it once we have it.”

Striving to restore dignity

Media reports dating from the early 1980s chronicle years of failed efforts to make Potter’s Field the dignified resting place that so many people believe it should be.

But this latest effort stands apart, Gamstetter said.

“I think what’s different about it this time is the harnessing of the power and energy of the students,” he said. “A lot of them were very, very passionate about it, and they had some great ideas.”

Those ideas include a landscaped bridge to carry pedestrians from Rapid Run Park, across Guerley Road, into Potter’s Field, he said, and a raised boardwalk-style pathway through the cemetery so visitors would not disturb the old graves.

“They did put a lot of thought into landscape treatment and ways to secure the gravestones that are out there,” Gamstetter said. “And some kind of a memorial that would be a quiet, reflective kind of place.”

Mary Jo Bazeley is pictured standing in the overgrown Potter's Field cemetery. She is wearing a Cincinnati Parks volunteer shirt, and her long, white hair is pulled back.
Mary Jo Bazeley

Bazeley believes in the power of students, too. She has been working for years to pick up litter and clear portions of Potter’s Field annually with volunteers from Elder High School.

She said she would like to see the old cemetery maintained with respectful pathways.

“So people can walk through and just have peace and calming and see the stones and our history,” she said. “What was here.”

But after 20 years of volunteering at Potter’s Field, Bazeley said she isn’t sure that will be completed in her lifetime.

This photo shows Elder High School students helping to clear overgrown weeds and brush from Potter's Field during a volunteer event on May 1, 2021.
Elder High School student volunteers help clear parts of Potter's Field on May 1, 2021.

The first step will be finding the original boundaries of the site, Morgan said, and figuring out where all the graves are located and whether they extend into Rapid Run Park.

“This entire process begins with the assumption that nobody’s going to ask the city for any money,” Morgan said. “I think if we approach it like that, it has a better chance of moving forward because it just … avoids a lot of jockeying over resources that’s a constant problem.”

“It’s a sad legacy,” Dienno said. “But we really do hope to move forward in a positive light and again give that same dignity it deserves.”

For Morgan, the Potter’s Field Initiative comes back to this basic degree of respect that he believes all people deserve when they die.

“And this isn’t it,” he said, looking around the overgrown cemetery. “This is really the definition of disrespect. And I don’t think anybody deserves to be perpetually disrespected.”

This photo shows two obscured grave markers at Potter's Field in West Price Hill. Weeds make it difficult to see the small, rectangular markers.
Two of the hundreds of obscured grave markers at Potter's Field in West Price Hill.

The GoFundMe Campaign for the Potter’s Field Initiative is seeking to raise $12,000. More information about the campaign, including how to donate, is available online.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on problems we need to address. Poverty is an important focus for Lucy and for WCPO 9. To reach Lucy, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.