The Extraordinary Tanners

I’ve seen the painting above, The Thankful Poor, for most of my life in various places and circles. Lately, I was curious to find the artist of such a stirring, spiritual piece, so, I googled it. The artist is Appalachia’s own Henry Ossawa Tanner, born in Allegheny County, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on June 21, 1859. I wanted to share his exceptional talent(s) and his intriguing life with Appalachia Bare’s readers. Yet, my discoveries took me on a path that illuminated the entire Tanner family. They were extraordinary. Well before the Civil War, they achieved college degrees and met great successes – unusual accomplishments for African Americans in the early to mid-1800s. Their triumphs are not only a testament to the human spirit but also to the United States. How so? Even in the midst of turmoil and chaos, renaissance grew amidst the cracks, and provided room for enlightenment and intellectualism to bloom.

In honor of Black History Month, I present the Tanners and their stories in a series of three posts. I have striven to provide some of their stories using documented sources, though most African American records are, sadly, lost or left unrecorded. I tried to do my best with the information I found, and I hope these writings have honored their memories and/or promoted their legacies. The first post uncovers the lives of Benjamin Tucker Tanner and his wife, Sarah Elizabeth Miller Tanner. The second post focuses on their sons, Henry Ossawa and Carlton. The third post will highlight the lives of two Tanner daughters, Halle and Isabella, as well as a granddaughter, Sadie. Keep in mind the era of the lives mentioned spans from Pre to Post Civil War, and, though their lives unfolded in the free state of Pennsylvania, life wasn’t easy by a longshot. Without further ado, let’s meet the Tanners.

 

 

Benjamin Tucker Tanner was one of twelve children born to Hugh and Isabella Tanner in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on Christmas Day 1835. The Tanners were devout Christians and very much engaged in abolitionist activism. Benjamin was well-educated, attending Avery College, a school for African-Americans founded by white abolitionist, Charles Avery. Tanner paid his way through school by working as a barber. His future wife and love of his life, Sarah, also attended Avery.

Sarah Miller, according to what her great-granddaughter, Rae Alexander-Minter was told, was born on May 18, 1840 as

one of eleven children born to a slave named Elizabeth. Six of Elizabeth’s children were fathered by Charles Miller, a freedman who wanted to marry her; five of her children were fathered by the slave master who owned the plantation. Each time Miller saved enough money to purchase Elizabeth’s freedom, the slave master increased the price. Finally Elizabeth contacted agents of the Underground Railroad. With their assistance, she put Sarah and her other children in one of the master’s double-team wagons, stocked it with food, and sent them away at midnight, never to see them again.1)Mosby, Dewey F. Henry Ossawa Tanner. Philadelphia: Rizzoli, 1991. p. 24 2)The children were taken by the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society, split up, and reared by various families in the state.

Benjamin and Sarah were married on August 19, 1858. Shortly after, Benjamin attended Western Theological Seminary in Allegheny and was later ordained as bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church.3)Mosby, Dewey F. Henry Ossawa Tanner. Philadelphia: Rizzoli, 1991. p. 24 He moved to Washington D.C. and, in 1861, founded a school for freed slaves “in the U.S. Navy Yards.”4)Mathews, Marcia M. Henry Ossawa Tanner: American Artist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969. p.7 He and his family subsequently moved to Baltimore, Maryland. His first of several books, An Apology for African Methodism, was published in 1867. About a year later, he was named editor of the Christian Recorder (the oldest African American journal in the United States) and remained so until 1884 when he was elected as editor of The A.M.E. Church Review. He received “an honorary M.A. degree” from Avery College in 1870.5)Mathews, Marcia M. Henry Ossawa Tanner: American Artist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969. p. 13 In 1872, the Tanners settled into a more permanent, eight-room house in North Philadelphia.6)Mathews, Marcia M. Henry Ossawa Tanner: American Artist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969. p.12-13

 

 

Though Benjamin achieved much during these years, he didn’t have an easy go of it. The following excerpts from his daybook, provided in the book Henry Ossawa Tanner: American Artist by Marcia M. Mathews, attest to a portion of the racism, bigotry, and pitfalls he and/or his family experienced.

Benjamin and his family were separated for a time as he adjusted to the clergy and the freedmen’s school. They reunited in November, 1860 when he met Sarah and the children in Baltimore, then “went on to Washington by the 4:30 train. Of the journey Tanner cryptically remarks: ‘In the cars American prejudice.’”7)Mathews, Marcia M. Henry Ossawa Tanner: American Artist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969. p. 5

In another entry, Reverend Tanner writes:

If the colored people would only do right is the cry from the parlor to the kitchen, from the Senate Hall to the country squire shanty. “Colored people won’t do right.”

Right, what do they mean by right, is it to see white yet their eyes have been put out, to love labor while yet they are taught none but the meanest work – to love their country, while yet it brands them the most infamous on earth. To love their race while yet from infancy they are taught to believe their natural inferiority. If colored people would do right. Oh yes, to do that ‘right’ we would not be men . . .8)Mathews, Marcia M. Henry Ossawa Tanner: American Artist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969. p. 8

Tanner lamented the insufferable position of African Americans, particularly the well-educated, saying, “What business has a man of polished mind in a dining room as a servant?” and “Must they go into some knave’s kitchen to cook for some numbskulls. It is not proper for the superior to act servant to the inferior, not even the equal.”9)Mathews, Marcia M. Henry Ossawa Tanner: American Artist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969. p. 9

Tanner’s son, Henry, recalls an incident during the Civil War:

From our attic window the rebel camp and soldiers could be seen. Once my father for some cause was at the little station and by his clothes was recognized as a minister. “Hello! Sambo, what are you doing with those duds on, take this,’” and he was kicked out of the station.10)Mathews, Marcia M. Henry Ossawa Tanner: American Artist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969. p. 11-12

After this incident, the Reverend protected his family by “nailing up the windows to make it look vacant.”11)Mathews, Marcia M. Henry Ossawa Tanner: American Artist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969. p. 12

Despite these encounters (and more besides), the Tanner family flourished. Sarah Milller Tanner birthed nine children with Benjamin, seven of whom survived to adulthood: Henry Ossawa (1859-1937), Halle (1864-1901), Mary Louise (1865-1935), Isabella (1867-?), Carlton (1870-1933), Sara Elizabeth (1873-1900), and Bertha (1878-1962).12)Mosby, Dewey F. Henry Ossawa Tanner. Philadelphia: Rizzoli, 1991. 35 In addition to motherhood, Sarah was instrumental in organizing the A.M.E.’s Mite Missionary Society – “one of the earliest societies of black women in America.”13)Mosby, Dewey F. Henry Ossawa Tanner. Philadelphia: Rizzoli, 1991. p. 27 Sarah died in 191414)Sara Tanner’s death certificate lists cause of death as “apoplexy” due to “cystitis” and Benjamin’s death followed in 1923.

Benjamin Tucker Tanner traveled the world – from the West Indies to London, etc. – as a “minister of the gospel.” 15)United States of America. Benjamin T. Tanner United States of America Passport Application. Document, Philadelphia: Family Search, 1889.Some of Benjamin Tanner’s other books include: The Negro’s Origin and Is the Negro Cursed? (1869); An Outline of Our History and Government for African Methodist Churchmen. Ministerial and Lay (1884); and The Color of Solomon – What?: “My Beloved is White and Ruddy.” A Monograph (1895).

Look for Part II of the Tanner series where we’ll meet the famous artist, Henry Ossawa and his brother Carlton.

**Featured image of The Thankful Poor, 1894, by Henry Ossawa Tanner – Wikimedia via The Athenaeum

References

1, 3 Mosby, Dewey F. Henry Ossawa Tanner. Philadelphia: Rizzoli, 1991. p. 24
2 The children were taken by the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society, split up, and reared by various families in the state.
4 Mathews, Marcia M. Henry Ossawa Tanner: American Artist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969. p.7
5 Mathews, Marcia M. Henry Ossawa Tanner: American Artist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969. p. 13
6 Mathews, Marcia M. Henry Ossawa Tanner: American Artist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969. p.12-13
7 Mathews, Marcia M. Henry Ossawa Tanner: American Artist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969. p. 5
8 Mathews, Marcia M. Henry Ossawa Tanner: American Artist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969. p. 8
9 Mathews, Marcia M. Henry Ossawa Tanner: American Artist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969. p. 9
10 Mathews, Marcia M. Henry Ossawa Tanner: American Artist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969. p. 11-12
11 Mathews, Marcia M. Henry Ossawa Tanner: American Artist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969. p. 12
12 Mosby, Dewey F. Henry Ossawa Tanner. Philadelphia: Rizzoli, 1991. 35
13 Mosby, Dewey F. Henry Ossawa Tanner. Philadelphia: Rizzoli, 1991. p. 27
14 Sara Tanner’s death certificate lists cause of death as “apoplexy” due to “cystitis”
15 United States of America. Benjamin T. Tanner United States of America Passport Application. Document, Philadelphia: Family Search, 1889.

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