'Invisible Ground' podcast excavates the history of Southeast Ohio

Joel Oliphint
This angel statue in West State Street Cemetery in Athens was placed there in 1924 in honor of the cemetery's unknown dead.

West State Street Cemetery sits right in the middle of Athens, Ohio, mere blocks from uptown and the campus of Ohio University. People walk through it every day, often using it as a shortcut to get somewhere else.

“There are these people walking by this place, and if you just look down at a few of the stones as you walk through, all of a sudden you're taken into this world that came before you,” said Brian Koscho, host of “Invisible Ground,” a new podcast centered around the history of Southeast Ohio. For the first episode, Koscho concentrated on West State Street Cemetery — a place with which he became intimately familiar after graduating from Ohio University in 2006.

For his summer job, Koscho was tasked with painting the wrought-iron fence bordering the cemetery and trimming the grass around graves. Nearly 15 years later, Koscho, who’s now an MFA candidate in Communication Media Arts at Ohio University, realized West State Street was the perfect place to kick off the podcast. “It’s this really accessible thing,” he said. “We all end up there at some point, but also [cemeteries] exist everywhere. … Sometimes people think it's weird to go walk around a cemetery, but it couldn't be further from that, actually.”

In the first episode of “Invisible Ground,” Koscho speaks to multiple experts and historians to help tell the fascinating story of the cemetery and some of the people interred there, though he makes a point not to focus solely on famous Ohioans. “The big stories in history are incredibly useful, but I think what you find when you dial down to the community level, to the local history level, is you find those same stories, it’s just that the connection is more real and tangible,” Koscho said.

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Koscho tells the story of Athens lawyer W.E. Peters, a kindred spirit who meticulously documented the history of Athens and took it upon himself to research the people in West State Street Cemetery. Peters found unmarked graves and placed headstones there himself, including the gravesite of Andrew Jackson Davison, a freed slave who eventually became the first Black attorney in Athens County.

“In ‘Invisible Ground,’ as much as I can, there’s an effort to tell Black history in Southeast Ohio and talk about Native American and even pre-white contact history,” Koscho said.

Koscho plans to release the next episode, which will focus on Mound Cemetery in Marietta, near the new year. Mound Cemetery gets its name from an enormous, Hopewell-era conical mound, which is surrounded by the names of trailblazing pioneers such as Rufus Putnam. In fact, Mound Cemetery contains more graves of Revolutionary War officers than any place in the country.

Future episodes will likely focus on cemeteries in Southeast Ohio’s small coal towns known as the Little Cities of Black Diamonds, and perhaps on lesser-known gravesites, such as the Confederate soldier buried next to a Black Union soldier at the Ridges, a former asylum in Athens. Or the single headstone in a backyard that reads, “Bobby.”

Invisible Ground” will expand beyond cemeteries, too. Koscho is kicking around ideas involving towns with 100 people or fewer, historic buildings and Southeast Ohioans who were present at landmark moments in history. To Koscho, podcasting is the perfect medium to bring those histories to life, which can lead to a greater appreciation of the people and the land.

“I want to draw a little bit of light to these things that are all around us,” Koscho said. “The hope is not only to find things that people might find interesting, but also to connect people a little bit more to the spaces around them.”

Andrew Jackson Davison, the first Black attorney in Athens County, is buried in West State Street Cemetery, with a marker by W.E. Peters.