In 1810, Alethia Browning Tanner bought her freedom with $1400 she had earned selling vegetables in the area known today as Lafayette Square. The area on the north side of the White House was part of public grounds known as President’s Park. Enslaved men and women in the 1800s sold fruits and vegetables there to enable them to raise money.
Tanner also saved enough money selling vegetables in the large open space to purchase her freedom and that of other members of her family. She and some of her relatives she helped free from slavery would become important members of the society. Tanner herself would pave the way for institutions that would contribute to the success of the civil rights movement. This is her story.
Born in 1781, Tanner and her sisters — Sophia Bell and Laurena Cook — were slaves on a plantation owned by Tobias and Mary Belt in Prince George’s County, Maryland. When Tobias and Mary Belt died, their plantation was inherited by their daughter Rachel Belt Pratt. Tanner and one of her sisters, Sophia, remained at the plantation while Laurena, their other sister, went to live with a sibling of Rachel Belt Pratt, according to historians.
Tanner at the time had begun selling vegetables at the open-air market in President’s Park. Thomas Jefferson was likely one of her customers as he visited the market often, historians said. It is also believed that Tanner did various housework tasks for Jefferson. Through her vegetable business, Tanner saved enough money to purchase her freedom in 1810. According to attucksadams.com, “The total amount, thought to have been paid in installments, was $1,400. In 1810, $1,400 was a significant amount; about the equivalent of three years’ earnings for an average skilled tradesperson.”
Tanner, after buying her freedom in 1810, became one of the about 2,500 free Black people in D.C. Essentially, she became an important member of the early free Black community of Washington, DC. About 15 years after purchasing her freedom, Tanner continued to work as a businesswoman and used some of her profits to purchase the freedom of more than 20 of her family members and friends. She bought the freedom of her older sister Laurana and Laurana’s children. Tanner also freed many of her nephews and nieces and neighbors in Washington.
“All in all, Tanner would have paid the Pratt family well over $5,000. All of this was done with proceeds from her own vegetable market business,” attucksadams.com wrote.
One of the nephews she helped free was John Cook. She later supported his education. Cook attended the Columbia Institute with the help of Tanner and subsequently became the head of the school, renaming it the Union Seminary, as stated by Histories of the National Mall. Cook also founded the 15th Street Presbyterian Church, becoming the first Black Presbyterian minister in the city.
“In 1870, the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth was organized in the basement of this Church, and in 1892, the school moved into a new building at 128 M Street, NW and was renamed the M Street School. Among the many influential graduates of the M Street School was Charles Hamilton Houston, who fought important legal battles against segregation and discrimination in the early 20th century and established the Howard University School of Law as the leader in legal challenges to segregation that ultimately resulted in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision,” according to The White House Historical Association.
Tanner herself was also active in founding and supporting many educational, religious, and civic institutions. Before her death in 1864, she contributed funds to start the first school for free Black children in Washington, the Bell School.
“Feeling unwelcome at her predominately segregated church, she & other church members founded the Israel Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. When the church fell on hard times and was sold at auction by creditors, she and her family stepped in and repurchased the church,” Ward 5 Councilman Kenyan McDuffie said in 2020 after authorities took a decision to name a new park in Tanner’s honor.
The Alethia Tanner Park is located at 227 Harry Thomas Way in Northeast DC.