A collective of Philadelphia residents is rallying together to conserve a storied piece of Black history nestled in the heart of their city. According to ABC6, they’ve united to protect the former residence of revered painter Henry Ossawa Tanner—who transformed the world of art during the 19th and 20th centuries—from erasure.
Tanner was born in Pittsburgh and raised in Philadelphia, where he attended the Robert Vaux School. The all-Black educational institution was one of a small number of African American-led schools that offered liberal arts courses. At the age of 13—despite his father’s dismay—Tanner decided he would chart a path in the visual arts space and perfected his craft while coming of age by creating paintings and drawings.
In 1880, Tanner enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he studied under the tutelage of realist painter Thomas Eakins. After his stint at the institution, he relocated to Atlanta, where he cultivated his own gallery and taught art classes.
Tanner’s passion for the arts led him to Paris, France, where he immersed himself in an artistic movement that wasn’t bound by racism, discrimination and oppression. Tapping into the power of creative expression, Tanner used his globally acclaimed work to illustrate biblical scenes and Black life. Amongst his most notable pieces are “Nicodemus Visiting Jesus,” “The Thankful Poor,” and “The Banjo Lesson.” Tanner became one of the first Black artists to rise to global prominence, opening the door for generations of Black artistic innovators to use their work as an avenue to voice their perceptions of society.
The Henry O. Tanner House—located at 2908 West Diamond Street—is where he and his family resided. In an effort to repair the historic structure that has been decaying, a group called Friends of Tanner House launched a crowdfunding campaign to collect donations to restore and preserve the landmark. So far, they’ve raised $23,560 of their $285,718 goal. This Juneteenth weekend, the group is hosting a family-centered, art-inspired event to pay homage to Tanner ahead of what would have been his 163rd birthday and advance its preservation efforts.
The Tanner House project is one of many efforts launched to save historic Black spaces. In February, the Bray School—the nation’s oldest standing schoolhouse for African American children—received a $5 million preservation grant.
“It tells a story of the history of North Philadelphia in relation to the African American community,” Judith Robinson, a member of the Friends of Tanner House collective, told the news outlet. “It’s one house and many stories.”