The Philanthropists Behind Early Black Institutions

Guest post by Tamika Y. Nunley, author of At the Threshold of Liberty: Women, Slavery, and Shifting Identities in Washington, D.C.

I remember the day I went into the archives at Howard University where librarians generously gave me access to a lovely rendering of Alethia Browning Tanner, a formerly enslaved woman who earned enough income to purchase her own freedom. Once she became legally free, she continued to build her local enterprise selling goods in the local market in Washington, D.C. Tanner used her earnings to purchase the freedom of her sister along with her sister’s five children at a time when Black women’s income earning prospects were limited to a narrow set of options.  Tanner is an important example of the degree to which women like her maximized the possibilities of enslaved and free Black women’s informal economies. After she secured the freedom of several generations of her family members, Tanner began the work of supporting the education and spiritual edification of people within her network of kin.

Portrait of Alethia Browning Tanner. Cook Family Papers, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University

Tanner provided financial support for her nieces and nephews as they sought educational and broader employment opportunities. Tanner’s nephew John Cook was one such beneficiary of her generosity, and he became one of Washington’s most prominent educators. This tradition of philanthropy ran in the family. Tanner’s sister Sophia Browning purchased the freedom of her husband George Bell, who established the first school for African Americans in the District. The Browning, Bell and Cook families provided decades of support and leadership in Washington’s Black schools at a time when African Americans were excluded from the District’s public schools. Black residents not only paid taxes to support the schools they were excluded from but worked tirelessly to financially support the establishment of schools for their own.

Alethia Tanner not only appeared in the school records of Washington, but also in the records of the religious institutions of the city. When a group of members belonging to the racially segregated Ebenezer Church decided to establish a separate congregation, the group founded Israel Bethel Colored Methodist Church. When the church faced financial hurdles, Tanner and her brother-in-law purchased the church to address any debts owed. When Tanner’s nephew, John Cook founded Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, she served as the first woman to officially join the church and appears in records as a “Class Leader.” The fundraising committee of the church organized efforts to purchase a plot of land and they recorded Tanner as the only woman donor with the distinction of making the second highest contribution. Both Israel Bethel and Union Bethel merged to become present-day Metropolitan AME church, the oldest continuously operating church in the District of Columbia, a former haven for fugitive slaves, the church home of Elizabeth Keckly and Frederick Douglass, a place of worship for former US presidents, but significantly, a hub of spiritual edification and political activism for African Americans in the nation’s capital. The essence of philanthropy is generosity that centers the welfare of others. Black women like Alethia Browning Tanner, who confronted scarcity and limitations profoundly shaped by slavery, invested their earnings to support some of the nation’s most vibrant African American institutions and traditions.


Tamika Y. Nunley is assistant professor of history and comparative American studies at Oberlin College.