In 1872, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 13, moved with his family into a row house in north Philadelphia. The home became a vibrant hub for Black intellectual life, and the boy, a budding artist, spent years steeped in the ideas of the city’s prominent thinkers.
He lived in the house while attending the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in his early 20s—the only Black student there—and remained there until he was nearly 30. In 1891, hoping to escape the racism he faced in the United States, he moved to Paris, where his career flourished.
Today, Tanner is known as one of the first Black artists to win international acclaim. The family home, however, fell into disrepair. Like its onetime inhabitant, the row house and its surrounding neighborhood suffered from Philadelphia’s racially discriminatory policies. The building that once served as a cultural gathering place is no longer fit to inhabit.
But Christopher Rogers hopes it can flourish once again. Rogers serves as co-coordinator of the Friends of the Tanner House, the group of Black preservationists working to raise money to restore the structure—and the legacy it represents.
Rogers says that the house where Tanner experienced Black intellectual life as a teenager remained foundational even after the painter’s departure, as later generations continued to make their mark on the city.
For many years, the Tanner family played a critical role in “building and sustaining Black networks of intellectuals and academics and doctors,” he tells Smithsonian magazine, adding that the home likely hosted figures like Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington.
Tanner’s father was a minister who took over Philadelphia’s Mother Bethel African Episcopal Methodist Church, while his mother had escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad. They named their oldest son Henry Ossawa to commemorate an 1856 battle between abolitionist John Brown and pro-slavery raiders in Kansas.
From a young age, Tanner knew that he wanted to paint. At the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, he studied under Thomas Eakins and alongside Robert Henri; both left a lasting mark on American art, just as Tanner himself would. Tanner’s The Banjo Lesson (1893), an intimate depiction of Black resilience and family strength in the decades after the Civil War, directly influenced similar pieces by Norman Rockwell. It went on to be one of Tanner’s career-defining works.
“[The Banjo Lesson’s] economy of scale, its emotional delicacy, its nuanced orchestration of light and shadow and symbolism situates it in a resonant space in American art history,” wrote Farisa Khalid for Smarthistory in 2016.
Despite his legacy in the U.S., he spent little of his career there. In France, he studied at the Académie Julian, painted landscapes and religious subjects, met his wife and raised a son. He only returned to his home country for brief stints.
As the painter grew in fame and prestige in Europe, his family remained at the house, achieving national recognition in a variety of fields. His sister Halle became the first woman licensed to practice medicine in Alabama in 1891. Later, in 1921, his niece Sadie became one of the first Black woman in the U.S. to earn a PhD.
“[Tanner] was certainly unparalleled as an African-American artist” whose legacy is “probably still unsung,” says Rogers. “But he was raised in a family, and a community of people, who also really did amazing things.”
The future of the family home will depend on how much funding and community engagement the Friends of the Tanner House is able to secure. The group’s first and most pressing task is stabilizing the walls and roof. In its current state, says Rogers, the house is vulnerable to the elements, and a severe weather event could easily cause permanent damage.
The next step will be transferring the house from private ownership. The current owner, who inherited the house from his father, hopes to pass on its care to a nonprofit, which will then begin to develop programming about the Tanners and Black Philadelphia at the turn of the century.
The site scored several victories earlier this month: On May 1, the Mellon Foundation announced a $150,000 grant that will go toward programming. The following week, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the house on its list of America’s most endangered historic places.
The Friends of the Tanner House is also dedicated to ensuring that Black leadership remains central throughout the project. As the Equal Justice Initiative reported in 2020, fewer than 1 percent of preservationists in the U.S. are Black.
Rogers hopes the Tanner house will become the center of a cultural renaissance in the neighborhood, just as it was over a century ago. That way, the structure will be not only a historical home, but a place to continue the Tanner family’s legacy in Philadelphia.