By Jody Howison
Wesleyan, that run-down, overgrown cemetery on Colerain Avenue in Cumminsville, may not be just Cincinnati's most infamous burial ground. It may be Cincinnati's most historic as well.
No, it wasn't Cincinnati's first cemetery, nor its largest, nor its grandest, probably not even the most fought over, even though the court fights over it today, and in recent years, might make you think so. No, Wesleyan Cemetery is historic for other, more important reasons.
Founded in 1842, it was the first cemetery in Cincinnati to be racially integrated. This was well before the Civil War at a time when race riots were practically an annual event in our town. Granted, blacks were buried in their own special section of Wesleyan at that time, but then others were also buried in separate sections in those days.
This was also at a time when German Catholics and Irish Catholics wouldn't have been caught dead buried in the same cemetery. Throughout history and the world people have been even more bigoted in death than in life. Nobody seems to want to be buried next to someone who is the slightest bit different than they are. So, to have a racially integrated cemetery anywhere in the U.S. before the Civil War, let alone in Cincinnati, was a landmark event.
Wesleyan Cemetery was founded by the Methodist Church when its earlier cemeteries became full. The church then bought approximately 25 acres on Colerain Avenue adjacent to Mill Creek. An earlier small cemetery and Methodist church were already on the site, near its northwest corner. The church was called Wright Chapel and was destroyed by fire in 1889.
Early maps of Wesleyan Cemetery show a section near its southwest corner, down by Mill Creek, marked "colored." Granted, the "colored" section is on the edge of the cemetery but then so is Section M which was reserved for single burials as opposed to family plots. Today, of course, people of any race may be buried in any part of the cemetery.
In earlier days Wesleyan was also used as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Abolitionists staged fake funerals to help escaping slaves down to the rear of the cemetery where it adjoined Mill Creek. From there they could slip away north along the tree-bowered stream.
A second reason Wesleyan is an historic cemetery is that bodies of Revolutionary War veterans from other, earlier, cemeteries were moved there. In addition, the tombstones of early pioneers originally buried in Wesley Cemetery downtown were re-erected in a special section of Wesleyan some years ago.
A third reason that Wesleyan is an historic cemetery is that it was the first in Cincinnati to be designed in a park-like fashion with winding drives, trees and shrubs. Most Cincinnatians think of Spring Grove Cemetery, not founded until 1845, as the pioneer of this style in our city. Nevertheless, Wesleyan was the first to be designed in such a manner. In fact, in the first ten years of Spring Grove, park-like it was not.
A fourth reason Wesleyan is historic is that it was the first cemetery in town to keep records. The staff kept burial records from the very beginning. At least 15 public cemeteries pre-dated Wesleyan in Cincinnati and not a single one of them (nor some later ones) kept records. Land seemed so plentiful that no one thought of keeping records until cemeteries began to fill and grave-diggers when digging a new hole struck an earlier grave. Digging and finding gold is one thing: digging and finding bodies is quite another.
Wesleyan, from the beginning, kept its records on file cards, with a fair amount of data concerning each person buried there. Sometime in the last few years these records seem to have disappeared. Various people blame various other people. Nevertheless, they did exist up until eight years ago.
Wesleyan should be famous in Cincinnati for these reasons. Instead, it's famous for lawsuits and its run-down appearance. But that's the American way. Once a U.S. cemetery gets filled with bodies, hence can no longer make money by selling burial plots, nobody wants it. The owners, usually churches or communities, try to sell them.
Death may be sacred in the United States, but not as sacred as the dollar.
Jody Howison is a resident of Hyde Park.