WILBERFORCE, Ohio — Each tombstone in Massies Creek Cemetery bears witness to a life, some cry out for equality while others whisper of education, faith, and family.
About five feet tall and covered in a mossy brown fuzz, one stone remained difficult to decipher until a local historian retrieved a toothbrush from her car and gently rubbed the marker. The strokes revealed a simple inscription: Name, birth date, death date. But the years between those dates, from 1851 to 1901, tell the story of the man laid to rest, and a winding walk from this marker to the cemetery edge and back to the front gates takes a visitor past the graves of more than a century’s worth of key African-American figures.
The gray monument marks the grave of the Rev. Samuel Mitchell, a Toledo-born president of Wilberforce University. He is among numerous nationally and regionally notable African-Americans buried alongside white community members in the Greene County cemetery located between Wilberforce and Cedarville in southwest Ohio.
PHOTO GALLERY: A tour of Massies Creek Cemetery
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Roderick Blount, who wrote his 2011 master’s thesis about this and another area cemetery, can’t walk but a few steps without stopping to marvel at a marker. Here, on a grassy slope, a pink-streaked monument designates the grave of Reverdy Ransom, an African Methodist Episcopal Church bishop. Near the back stands the elegant stone of William Scarborough, a Greek and Latin scholar, author, and another Wilberforce University president.
Hallie Q. Brown’s marker lists her achievements as teacher, elocutionist, writer, and humanitarian. The large, brick library at nearby Central State University bears her name and a historical marker outside the building chronicles her life, including her 1873 graduation from Wilberforce and describes her “powerful, scathing speech against discrimination.”
And in the cemetery’s center towers a glossy monument to Martin Delany, son of a free black mother and enslaved father and described as the “Father of Black Nationalism.”
“Delany is definitely the most prominent person buried in that cemetery, white or black,” Mr. Blount said.
Until recent years, Mr. Delany’s grave was modestly marked with a standard Civil War-era tombstone that designated his status as a major in the Union Army — he was the top-ranking black field officer — but spelled his last name wrong. His admirers rallied to erect a larger monument in Massies Creek Cemetery near the original marker. Former Toledo mayor Jack Ford was among those who raised money for the project honoring Mr. Delany, who died in 1885.
“He was kind of a hero of mine,” Mr. Ford said. “[He] doesn’t really get his fair share in American history, but he was a player.”
The recognition of Mr. Delany’s contributions is one way history remains alive at Massies Creek. The cemetery, established in 1814 by Presbyterians, is sometimes known as Tarbox Cemetery after an area family of that name.
It is operated by Cedarville Township and is still in use. Sexton Ron Ankeney estimates 15 or so people, black and white, are buried there each year. Mr. Ankeney helps dig the graves, maintain the grounds, and transcribes to computer the old burial permits and handwritten records.
The area attracted African-Americans because of the region’s abolitionist sentiments, the success of other black people who had moved there, its Underground Railroad connections, and the educational chances created by the 1856 opening of Wilberforce University, the country’s oldest historically black, private university.
“This was Mecca,” said Mr. Blount, who wrote his thesis while enrolled in the African American and African Studies program at Ohio State University. He recently began work as a Wilberforce admissions counselor.
Other factors drew African-Americans to Greene County, including the availability of work, he said, and it’s significant that many key figures chose to be interred at Massies Creek.
“It’s important to realize that where you are buried ..., that must be an important area for you because these people had the means to go where they wanted to go,” Mr. Blount said.
For Mr. Mitchell, the university was the draw and the nearby cemetery his final resting place. He was born in September, 1851, in Toledo, where his North Carolina-born parents stopped on a planned journey to Canada. In Toledo, the family found favorable conditions and work opportunities, and then they moved to Cincinnati and Indiana, according to an early Greene County historical account by Michael Broadstone.
After Mr. Mitchell’s father died, the family moved to Wilberforce, where Mr. Mitchell graduated in 1873. He earned a doctor of law degree from Kentucky State University, and in 1884 he began his 16-year tenure as Wilberforce president.
His is just one of hundreds of graves in the roughly 10-acre cemetery surrounded by farmland and bordered by the creek that flows into the Little Miami River.
Catherine Wilson, executive director of the Greene County Ohio Historical Society, relayed the county’s history as she walked the grounds, occasionally using a toothbrush to uncover tombstone inscriptions.
Mrs. Wilson stopped at Ms. Brown’s nearly pristine marker and remarked that the Wilberforce house where the author and elocutionist lived is now torn down.
Her Massies Creek gravestone, however, remains — testifying to her contributions, history entombed and preserved.
Contact Vanessa McCray at: email@example.com or 419-724-6065.