By France Griggs Sloat
Tyrone Williams has lived in Cincinnati for nearly 30 years. It’s his home. But during his three decades here, at least one piece of the city’s storied history eluded him—the story of the Black Brigade, Cincinnati’s free black men who were rounded up during the Civil War and forced into slave labor to protect the city from advancing Confederate troops.
Although a well-published poet, Williams had never created any type of public art. But when the call went out for someone to write a poem about the Black Brigade for a monument that was being created along Cincinnati’s riverfront, Williams decided to step outside of his usual comfort zone. It was, he thought, a perfect fit for him.
Others thought so as well. He was selected to write a 10-verse poem that was etched in stone as a small part of a larger piece of public art honoring the brigade. While notable on its own, what he loved most about the project was, as a poet, he got to work with three other artists in the monument’s creation.
“It takes your ego out of the process,” he says. “You have to work with someone else’s idea and you have to sometimes give up some things. It becomes part of something larger.”
[Read Williams' poem on Cincinnati's Black Brigade]
His research helped him imagine the feelings of the 400 men who, in September 1862, were taken from their homes, locked in mule cages overnight and forced across the Ohio River to build fortifications against the Confederates. He imagined the fears of their wives and children, not knowing if their men would come back from Kentucky, where they were at risk of being captured and returned to slavery.
He thought about the joy the men felt when they were rescued by an abolitionist judge-turned-colonel, returned to the city and offered the chance to willingly volunteer. And he imagined the pride they felt when 718 of them showed up the next morning to help defend their city—and their elation when the Confederate troops retreated.
The monument is a series of panels on a wall that consists of statues, bronze plaques and words etched in marble and stone. Williams’ 10 verses fill the spaces between the panels. The wall is embedded into the earth, resembling the fortifications the men built with their hands along eight miles of Kentucky landscape near Fort Mitchell. Shaped like a crescent, it points toward the Ohio River and the Kentucky shore.
The names of all 718 men in the three regiments are engraved along the bottom of the wall. Their flag is engraved beneath a statue of a worried woman and child. Another statue, depicting Judge William Dickson receiving a sword from a brigade member, anchors the end, near the words of Williams’ final poem, which is etched permanently into the stone—and into Cincinnati’s memory.