Philadelphia is a city rich in history, but too often we’ve allowed the spaces where that history happened to decay. When this happens, we risk losing the stories of the past that gave these places their significance, and what those historical lessons can inform about our present and our future. Lose this connection is what’s at stake for the Henry Ossawa Tanner house at Strawberry Mansion.
Tanner is one of the greatest artists in town. He was also one of the first African American artists to gain international recognition. He is someone Philadelphia deserves to be proud of, and his memory should be preserved.
This preservation effort should begin with his family home.
Home to generations of the Tanner family, 2908 W. Diamond Street was once referred to by eminent scholar and historian Carter G. Woodson “as the center of Philadelphia’s black intellectual community.” The Tanner family is part of a Philadelphia lineage that has helped shape the fields of law, medicine, civil rights, public service, theology, education – and, for our purposes, arts.
The house has been designated a National Historic Landmark, but is currently empty and falling into disrepair. If nothing is done, the building may become dangerous and must be demolished.
READ MORE: Once ‘the center of Philadelphia’s black intellectual community,’ the Henry O. Tanner House may be torn down
It would do great harm to the legacy of Henry O. Tanner, whose work forms the basis of the collections of two of the city’s great museums, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. And as leaders of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s African American Collections Committee, we felt it was our responsibility to highlight what Tanner has meant to our institution and the city’s cultural landscape – and to highlight the critical call to action to help preserve this historically significant home.
Born in Pittsburgh and educated in Philadelphia, Tanner studied painting with Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts from 1879 to 1885. He then moved to Paris, as he felt he couldn’t fight racism and be an artist at the same time. There, he painted and exhibited his flagship work, The Annunciationwhich was purchased by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1899. It was the first painting by Tanner to enter an American museum and was one of the most significant events in the development of the museum’s collection.
“The Tanner House at Strawberry Mansion is important for more than art.”
The museum would continue to collect other works by Tanner, including Portrait of the artist’s mother, transmitted to the museum by the descendants of the Tanner family.
For more than a century, Tanner served as the basis of African-American heritage at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This legacy encompasses not only hundreds of artists, but also the principal architect of the museum’s iconic main building, Julian Abele, and our committee’s founder, Dr. Constance E. Clayton, the first African American and first woman to serve as superintendent of the museum. Philadelphia School District.
As the mission of our committee is to manage this great collection, to advocate for its continued growth, and to preserve and share the consistent narrative of African American contributions to the museum, the condition of the Tanner House demands our attention. Tanner’s connection is far from tangential or abstract to our work; his great-niece, Rae Alexander-Minter, is a member of our committee.
But the Tanner House at Strawberry Mansion is important for more than art. Tanner’s father, Benjamin, was a newspaper editor who wrote about post-Civil War conditions for black people and likely met Frederick Douglass and other prominent figures; Booker T. Washington came to the house to discuss the issues of the day.
We fully support the campaign to save and restore the Tanner family home. The museum donates a portion of the proceeds from the sale of products featuring Tanner’s work to the campaign.
We pledge to continue to encourage every Philadelphian to visit the museum to experience Tanner’s artistic achievements, be inspired by them, and take pride in the important role he played in our shared cultural heritage. While these gifts are appreciated globally (and rightly so), we can do more to recognize and celebrate them locally. We invite you to join our efforts in this cause.
Darryl J. Ford and Nia Ngina Meeks are chair and vice chair, respectively, of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s African American Collections Committee.