Op-Ed: Honor Black History All Year Long Through Historic Preservation

March 2, 2023 | by Christopher R. Rogers

The Henry O. Tanner House at 2908. W. Diamond Street in Strawberry Mansion. | Photo: Peter Woodall

Carter G. Woodson, the originator of Black History Month, spent considerable time in Philadelphia including at the Tanner-Alexander family residence located at 2908. W. Diamond Street. The blueprint that Woodson established was anchored by the idea that we should be honoring Black history all year long with a month serving as a platform for showcasing promising projects and undervalued treasures that emerged from the labor of the previous year. 

As Black History Month 2023 comes to a close, Friends of the Tanner House invite residents of the Greater Philadelphia area to remain engaged in sustaining the powerful possibilities that emerge from honoring the glorious Black past. It is not surprising to see that the teaching of African American history is under attack when we recognize that Black contributions to the world have consistently uplifted principles of equity, justice, and inclusiveness that challenge longstanding prejudice. These traditions are open to all communities to bear witness, take notice, and find their place within the struggle to restore human dignity to all. One tangible way we may all further this mission is through investing in the stewardship of historic African American sites, whereas many of these places struggle to maintain the infrastructure and labor that allow for them to serve as dynamic landmarks of community engagement, education, and empowerment. 

A photographic portrait of Henry Ossawa Tanner taken in Philadelphia, exact date unknown. | Photo courtesy of Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Alongside Friends of the Tanner House, we are hopeful for recovering a new entrant into Philadelphia’s Black preservation ecosystem by rehabilitating the Henry Ossawa Tanner House, a National Historic Landmark located in North Central Philadelphia. The rowhouse at 2908 W. Diamond Street in Strawberry Mansion was home to the distinguished 19th-century African American painter. The property was originally purchased by Tanner’s father, Benjamin Tucker Tanner, and his mother, Sarah Elizabeth Tanner, in 1872 after his father accepted a ministry position at the historic Mother Bethel African Episcopal Methodist Church. It should be also noted that Sarah Elizabeth Tanner self-emancipated from enslavement as a child with the support of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, reinforcing Philadelphia’s rich Underground Railroad tradition. 

The Annunciation by Henry O. Tanner was painted in 1898. The Philadelphia Museum of Art acquired the piece in 1899. It was the first painting by Tanner to be purchased by an American museum. | Image courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art

Tanner was born in Pittsburgh, but it was in Philadelphia where he fell in love with painting after sojourning through Fairmount Park with his father and witnessing a landscape painter at work. Tanner’s commitment to the craft would eventually lead him to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. After graduating, Tanner went on to paint globally notable works of art, where the Smithsonian applauds him as “the most distinguished African American artist of the 19th century.” It is true that he chose to leave Philadelphia relatively young, which Tanner once noted was consequential to the racism he faced within the art world at the time. He moved to Paris, France and forged a path to international acclaim and success, powerfully influencing generations of Black artists who came after him. Works like The Annunciation, purchased by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1899, endure and continue to inspire. 

The Henry O. Tanner House in 1980. | Photo courtesy of Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress

Most recently, Friends of the Tanner House, a Black-led volunteer group of preservation advocates, intend to raise $35,000 to leverage the immediate, urgent stabilization work needed to reinforce the exterior walls and to seal the roof of the historic home. Current homeowner Dr. Michael Thornton is diligently navigating the process to untangle the title after inheriting the home from his father. He is excited about the opportunity to transfer the property to a local nonprofit to set the foundation for the home’s next life. Friends of the Tanner House know that the possibilities for the Henry O. Tanner House represent the growth and development of the rich Black cultural life of North Philadelphia, a community that continues to evolve, while working to develop a means to thrive and undo decades of systemic injustice.

The misnomer, or miseducation, that people have of Woodson was that he proposed the public recitation of Black history facts, rather than the more visionary platform of organizing through Black history to achieve magnificent, thriving Black futures. African American historic sites around the Philadelphia area continue this tradition. Support us. Get involved. Even if it is not the Tanner House, we want to know which historic Black landmarks are important to you.

For more information about the effort to save the Henry O. Tanner House:


About the Author

Christopher R. Rogers is the co-coordinator of the Friends of the Tanner House, the public programs director of the Paul Robeson House, and a research fellow at the Center for the Preservation of Civil Rights Sites at the University of Pennsylvania.


  1. Excellent! So proud to be one of the Founding Members of the Friends of TANNER House. Thank you Christopher R.Rogers, for coordinating this major effort to stabilize this National Historic Landmark located in Strawberry Mansion North Philly. As a tour guide with Hidden City and docent at the Historic Church of the Advocate, we look forward to expanding our North Philly tours to include the Tanner House and other Artists of North Philly stories.

  2. Senator Vincent Hughes says:

    I want to help.
    Please reach out so we can discuss.
    Thank you for your important help.

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