Black women’s histories have either been ignored or mentioned only in their support of Black male figures for far too long. More Philadelphians should know about and cherish the trailblazing legacy of Dr. Halle Tanner Dillon Johnson.
The Friends of the Tanner House (FOTH) is a Black-led collective of historic preservation advocates organizing to stabilize and rehabilitate 2908 W. Diamond Street, which is already registered as a National Historic Landmark. The home was added to the national register because of the well-known accomplishments of painter Henry Ossawa Tanner, whom the Smithsonian notes as the most distinguished African-American artist of the 19th century. However, the FOTH also recognizes that he was far from the only accomplished member of the Tanner family that deserves to be honored and plans to amend the national register designation to include Halle’s story.
Halle, like her older brother Henry, was born in Pittsburgh. She was the first daughter of Benjamin Tucker Tanner and Sarah Elizabeth Tanner. They moved to Philadelphia in 1868 when Benjamin Tucker Tanner was recruited to take on a role as bishop with Mother Bethel AME Church, the oldest African Methodist Episcopal congregation in the United States. The Tanner family moved to North Philadelphia in 1872, settling into the newly-constructed home at 2908 W. Diamond Street.
Highly educated, Halle Tanner’s early work included helping her father publish the AME Church’s newspaper, the Christian Recorder, which is honored to this day as the oldest existing periodical published by African Americans. At 22, Halle married Charles Dillon and two years later, the couple welcomed a baby. When Charles died suddenly a few weeks after the birth, Halle chose to enter medical school as she needed a way to support herself and her child. She was 24 when she entered the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP). Halle was not the first Black woman to ever attend, but she was the only African American in her class when she graduated with honors on May 7, 1891.
Around the time of her graduation, famed Black educator Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute, had written to the WMCP hoping to find an African American physician to serve the school and its surrounding community. With the endorsement of her Dean Clara Marshall, Halle wrote Washington about the position. He responded with a description and traveled to Philadelphia that spring to meet with her and her father, presumably at the family home on Diamond Street. Washington wouldn’t be the first luminary to visit the Tanner House. Additional historical records and testimony name Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, and Carter G. Woodson as other visitors to the home in North Philly. Tanner family descendant Rae Alexander-Minter recounts that Woodson once called the home “the center of Black intellectual life in Philadelphia.” Halle would accept Washington’s offer of $600 a month, including lodging and meals. She traveled to Alabama to begin her service in August 1891.
During her four-year tenure at the Tuskegee Institute, Halle was responsible for the health care of the school’s 450 students and 30 faculty and staff. She also established a training school for nurses and founded the Lafayette Dispensary to serve the health care needs of local residents, often mixing medicines herself for their use. According to the Drexel Medical Legacy Center, Johnson’s efforts to establish a dispensary and clinic is an example of how early Black female physicians were compelled to establish new institutions to address inequities in healthcare for African Americans as well as professional opportunities for Black doctors with a focus on female doctors.
On May 1, 1894, Halle submitted a report on her work at the Lafayette Dispensary and other observations, which was published in the Report of the Proceedings of the Nineteenth Annual Meeting of the Alumnae Association of the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. She attributes the poor health of the community around Tuskegee, Alabama to poverty, a lack of infrastructure, and the lack of access and transportation to affordable health care. Others who embraced a nefarious racial science logic would lay blame on African Americans for their ill health, rather than attending to the environmental and social determinants which predicated Black health vulnerabilities.
In 1894, Halle got married again. John Quincy Johnson was a math professor at the Tuskegee Institute. Over the next six years the new couple moved around a bit while John completed his theology education, first to Columbia, South Carolina, then to Hartford, Connecticut, Atlanta, Georgia, and Princeton, New Jersey. Along the way the couple had three children. In 1900, they made a final move to settle down in Nashville, Tennessee. Halle opened up her own medical practice and John became minister of Saint Paul AME Church. But their happy existence was cut short when Halle died on April 26, 1901 from complications related to the birth of her fourth child.
Gone far too soon, Halle opened a path for what it meant to be a community-engaged medical professional, breaking through unfair, prejudiced barriers to support and incubate institutions that took seriously the holistic wellness of Black communities. When we see the contemporary work of Dr. Ala Stanford and the work of the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium in North Philadelphia, we should think of the inheritance set forth from the blueprint of Dr. Halle Tanner Dillon Johnson.