Black History Month: Stories from Oak Hill Cemetery


Oak Hill Cemetery (255 South Ave.) contains many voices from Battle Creek’s past, including Sojourner Truth and the Kellogg brothers.
But some of the most interesting stories come from ordinary people who lived through extraordinary times.

Perry Sanford escaped slavery in 1847 and made it to a safe settlement in Cass County. It was raided one night by armed men from Kentucky, and they managed to capture 25 African Americans and load them into tobacco wagons. 

However, the man who owned the cabins where the African Americans were living had the invaders arrested for breaking doors and windows. The people who were imprisoned in the wagons mysteriously “disappeared” while the slavers were being kept in jail, and the wagons were pushed into Birch Lake.

Sanford was able to avoid the slavers and he was part of a group sent to Battle Creek by abolitionist Quakers for safe haven.

The Mount Zion A.M.E. Church has this account of their arrival from Erastus Hussey: “We heard them coming over the West Main Street Bridge. Everyone had heard of their coming and every man, woman, and child in the city was upon the street and it looked as if a circus was coming to town. It was a lovely moonlight night. There were nine white men with them who acted as guards (to protect the evacuees). Ahead of them rode Zach Shegart, the old Quaker, with his broad-rimmed white hat and mounted on a fine horse…They cooked their own supper of bread, potatoes, and pork, as they were very hungry, they relished it keenly. The next morning the majority of them went to Canada via Marshall, but a few remained in Battle Creek, who became honored citizens and well known. Among them were William Casey, Perry Sanford, Joseph Skipworth, and Thomas Henderson.”

Sanford decided to stay and he was one of the first African American residents. He lived until his 80s and was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery.

Oak Hill has a number of prominent citizens. One of them is John W. Patterson, who played baseball in the Negro leagues and was Battle Creek’s first African American policeman.

When World War I brought an influx of soldiers to the area, many white Southern soldiers clashed with the local African-American community.

According to an article in the Battle Creek Creek Enquirer, Patterson wrote a letter to the commander of Camp Custer, warning him that his Southern officers were bringing their segregationist attitude to Battle Creek.

Patterson also offered African-American boxer Jack Johnson a place to stay when he traveled through Battle Creek. Johnson’s success in the ring made him a target for racists. He was indicted for his relationship with Lucille Cameron, a white woman, whom he married. The bond threatened his career, and he broke it to go to a meeting in Toronto about booking a big fight.

Patterson kept him out of jail for the night, and then Chicago officers came to take Johnson into custody.

If you would like to see Patterson’s grave, it has a BCPD badge marker, which helps make it easier to find.

Other trailblazers you can find at Oak Hill: Alma and Ben Grayson, the first African-Americans to own a restaurant in Battle Creek; Maude Bristol Perry, the first woman mayor of Battle Creek; and Daniel Patton, Jr., Battle Creek’s first African-American principal, who was the son of Daniel Patton, Sr., the area’s first African-American funeral director.

For more interesting tales about people buried in Oak Hill, including Junior Walker, click here. https://www.battlecreekvisitors.org/2019/08/six-famous-people-buried-at-oak-hill-who-are-not-cereal-magnates/

Want local feel-good news, events, photos and a trivia contest? Sign up for Dear Battle Creek, a monthly newsletter by the Calhoun County Visitors Bureau. https://lp.constantcontact.com/su/Vt4DJPJ

Call
Map
Translate