A good friend of mine, an extraordinarily gifted writer, was seeking information about Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, whose mother was Mary Louise Tanner, the sister of the great painter Henry Ossawa Tanner. I was able to direct her to one of the living descendants of Alexander, her daughter, Rae Pace Alexander-Minter, who was able to relate with authority the family’s illustrious genealogy.
Curiously, just a few weeks before, I was pursuing another project on the African Methodist Church and stumbled upon the name of Benjamin Tucker Tanner, the patriarch of the Tanner family. And while he and his wife, Sarah Elizabeth Miller, were the parents of several highly successful children, they were fairly accomplished in their own right.
Tanner, a devout Christian, was born propitiously Christmas Day 1835 in Pittsburgh, Pa. He was one of Hugh and Isabella Tanner’s 12 children and at a very early age recognized a need to help his large family by delivering newspapers. Tanner was 17 when he enrolled at Avery College’s training school for Black youth, located in Allegheny City, Pa. It was here some six years later that he met and married Sarah Elizabeth Miller. They had four children, including the future painter Henry Ossawa Tanner and Halle Tanner Dillon Johnson, one of the first African-American female doctors in the country.
From 1856 to 1860, just before the eruption of the Civil War, Tanner was a student at the Western Theological Seminary in Allegheny and at the same time a member of the African Methodist Church. But as Dr. William Seraile, a foremost scholar on the life and times of Tanner, said, “With the exception of a single diary entry for 1858, Tanner’s diary for the period 1854-1859 no longer exists. As he did not write an autobiography, and few of his personal letters for this period are extant, little of his life is known for this period.”
However, we do know that in 1860, already in possession of his license to preach, he received his pastoral certificate and subsequently founded an AME church in Washington, D.C. It was here, during the Civil War, that he established the nation’s first freedmen school in the U.S. Navy Yard. He would later perform similar duties and leadership in freedmen’s schools in Maryland.
Meanwhile, his prestige and influence grew within the AME church, and by 1868 he was elected secretary of its General Conference. Even more remarkable, he was named editor of the church’s publication the Christian Recorder and helped it become the largest Black-owned periodical in the nation.
As the editor of the journal, Tanner felt an obligation to keep his readers as informed as possible on a multitude of issues, past and present. He viewed it as part of his “editorial responsibilities to interpret the news for readers, who often lacked the insight. An astute observer, Tanner introduced to his readers commentary on the secular world of politics and class consciousness, topics that many previously saw only in narrow religious terms. He warned the newly emancipated slave in mid-July 1868 [during the Reconstruction Era] to avoid the false promises of the Democratic Party.” None of this activity impeded his personal educational ambitions, and in 1878, he earned his Doctor of Divinity degree from Wilberforce College.
In 1884, Tanner was appointed the editor of the new AME newspaper, the AME Church Review. With a focus on literary matters, Tanner could set aside for the moment the burning political issues of the day that consumed him while he edited the Recorder. The tenure there was often in heated contention with Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, as well as keeping the publication financially afloat. Issues such as colonialization, the church’s mission in Africa and the Caribbean, and the politics of W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, whom he admired, kept him a busy arbiter.
There were also a mountain of theological debates to endure, but “Tanner’s command of Hebrew, Greek and Latin provided him with linguistic clues to the African presence in the Bible, and he used this knowledge to relentlessly criticize scholars for ignoring the contributions of Africans to the origins of Judaism and Christianly,” Seraile wrote.
His editorial duties paved the way for the several books he would author, including “An Apology for African Methodism” (1867), which was highly regarded among contemporary American scholars of religion, and “Outline and Government of the AME Church” (1883).
Given Tanner’s demanding schedule, it was difficult for him to assemble his family, but they did gather in “the winter of 1908,” wrote Dr. Rae Alexander-Minter, “to celebrate the Tanners’ 50th wedding anniversary. It was a festive occasion, although no doubt the race riots that had marred the summer were discussed. Those relatives who could not attend sent warm regards to the patriarch and his wife, including the bishop’s three living sisters, Nancy, Mary and Charlotte.”
Jan. 14, 1923, Tanner died in Washington, D.C., “several months before the family received the good news that Henry [the artist] had been made a chevalier of the Legion of Honor. Henry considered his citation by the French government to be the greatest honor of his illustrious career.”
“At his best,” wrote Seraile, “Tanner was a powerful voice agitating for an end to slavery, condemning the bias against Chinese immigrants and denouncing human rights violations against Jews in Eastern Europe. He influenced hundreds and perhaps thousands who read his editorials, essays and books. A representative voice from that group was Richard Wright Jr., who met Tanner in 1888, when he was 10 years old. Tanner gave the boy his autograph with these words: ‘Dear Richard: Choose for your associates those who you have reason to believe are better and wiser than yourself.’ The sage advice and Tanner’s example inspired Wright, who became editor of the Recorder and eventually a bishop in the AME Church.”