How Powhatan Beaty Became a ‘Landmark of Cincinnati’

The African-American Civil War war hero was a man of many talents, including Shakespeare.

The reviews were exceptional in 1884 when Cincinnati’s Powhatan Beaty took his Shakespearian show on the road. In Philadelphia, he was described as “a gentleman of rare culture and great ability.” The reviewer for The Washington (D.C.) Bee [May 10, 1884] opined that “Mr. Beaty made a hit in Macbeth.” The Colored Patriot, as quoted in The New York Globe [May 3, 1884], effused:

Portrait of Powhatan Beaty

Photograph digitized by Library of Congress

“Mr. Powhatan Beaty’s rendering of Spartacus was a gracious surprise. It had been some time since we heard that gentleman, but we were not prepared for the evidence of study and cultivation he manifested. All the emotions of the piece were depicted in his countenance and when he actually changed color and his face blanched with pallor, we could scarce realize it. Powerfully built, rugged and strong in his general appearance, he looked every inch a Roman gladiator. The audience leaned forward and eagerly listened to catch every word of his impassioned delivery, and when he finished they fell back in their seats with a sigh of relief that plainly expressed how they had been affected. Mr. Beaty is indeed a grand artist and has wisely selected the tragic muse for the shrine of his artistic devotion.”

It was rare to find a black man on the stage at all in those days, and rarer still to find white people in the audience for a performance by African Americans. The Indianapolis Leader, in an article [January 15, 1881] about Beaty, took note of this:

“The advent of colored men upon the stage has opened a new field of opportunity to them, and we are glad to find them reaching out for the profitable distinction which assured success must give.”

Beaty’s performances in Philadelphia and Washington earned him a place of honor at a dinner given for abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass. Also in attendance were some esteemed veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic. For them, Beaty’s Civil War exploits were just as exciting as his theatrical triumphs, because Powhatan Beaty had been voted a recipient of the Medal of Honor by act of the United States Congress.

At the Battle of New Market Heights, during the siege of Petersburg, Virginia, Beaty’s regiment was all but wiped out while attacking Confederate positions. Out of 85 men in his unit, only a dozen or so survived the attack and subsequent retreat. According to The Cincinnati Post [September 3, 1898]:

“Beaty started on the charge carrying a knapsack and a canteen of water. Bullets cut the knapsack off, carried his hat away and tore the sole off one of his shoes. He went to give a dying comrade a drink, when he found that the water had drained out a bullet hole.”

Beaty, a sergeant, saw his unit’s flag lying in the mud, discarded in retreat. Under heavy enemy fire, he ran back 600 feet to recover the flag, then rallied what was left of his unit to successfully attack and overcome the rebel fortification. General Benjamin Butler witnessed Beaty’s bravery and recommended him for the Medal of Honor. Butler also awarded Beaty a silver medal of his own design. Despite brevet promotion to lieutenant, the U.S. Army was not ready for black officers, according to The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune [June 6, 1886]:

“Only strong prejudice embodied into law prevented his promotion to the rank of a commissioned officer, though twice recommended for it by Colonel [Giles] Shurtleff.”

While national acclaim may have turned Powhatan Beaty’s head, he made this trip East while on a leave of absence from work. After a couple of weeks, he had to return to Cincinnati to take up his position as a janitor.

To be fair, a “janitor” in 1884 was a position of some responsibility, more like what we would call a building superintendent these days. The janitor or custodian oversaw the cleaning, maintenance, furnishing, and equipping of a building. Beaty probably supervised a small staff. Additionally, his appointment as janitor of the Lincoln Club was political. The Republican machine of Boss Cox supported several elite social facilities for the party faithful, and the Lincoln Club on Garfield Place was top notch, boasting more than 800 members. Equally ostentatious was the Young Men’s Blaine Club on Eighth Street, where Beaty was later employed.

Although Beaty was born free in 1835, he would have been considered a slave in the Southern states, because freedom was not considered hereditary. Although his parents had earned their freedom, their children were still considered enslaved. Beaty’s parents brought him from Virginia to Cincinnati around 1849 when he was a young teenager and apprenticed him to Henry Boyd, a successful African American furniture maker. Young Powhatan received a solid education under the guidance of abolitionist and educator Peter H. Clark. Although employed as a lathe operator, sawyer or cabinet maker for 20 years, Beaty’s name appears regularly in descriptions of amateur theater projects and in the political columns.

During the Civil War, Beaty, like most African Americans in Cincinnati, was dragooned into digging trenches in Northern Kentucky while the city awaited a Confederate assault. He later helped organize the 127th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, reorganized as the 5th United States Colored Troops. In addition to the Petersburg campaign, Beaty distinguished himself at several later battles.

Back in Cincinnati, few philanthropic gatherings in Cincinnati failed to include Lt. Powhatan Beaty on the program. His dramatic readings and recitations inspired his audiences to generosity. At a time when the Democratic Party was virulently segregationist, Beaty was a vital link from the Cox Machine to black voters.

Beaty’s passionate and loyal support of Cincinnati’s Republican Party eventually led to positions as superintendent at some of the most prestigious addresses in the city. Prejudice and segregation kept him confined to amateur stages. He wrote a play about the end of slavery but could not find a producer, and he tried a second eastern tour without success. When he died in 1916, the newspapers called him “one of the old landmarks of Cincinnati” and remembered his military service. The obituaries made almost no mention of Powhatan Beaty’s true love: the theater.

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