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.
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.
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.
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: https://savethetannerhouse.org/