As part of Black History Month, we invited Friends of the Tanner House – which we first introduced to our readers in this post – to talk about strategies for advancing Black heritage site preservation with attention to rich community and cultural engagement. In this blog post, guest contributor Chris Rogers discuss the principles behind their in-progress community visioning and preservation planning process.

The Friends of the Tanner House is an organization dedicated to preserving and revitalizing the historic Tanner family property at 2908 W. Diamond St, a 2023 America’s 11 Most Endangered Places designee. Through our heritage stewardship, the Friends of the Tanner House honors the growth, development and sustenance of the rich Black cultural life of North Central Philadelphia with family-centered artistic, intellectual, and cultural programming.

We recognize an obligation to the neighborhood upon which the National Historic Landmark Henry Ossawa Tanner House is located, making specific call outs to the 19121 and 19132 zip codes as a rich, dynamic context to steward a world-class site of Black heritage engagement.

Group of people stand on sidewalk in front of Henry Ossawa Tanner House holding paintings and brooms on a sunny day.

On February 3rd, 2024, community partners Blues Babe Foundation and Tree House Books partnered with the Friends of the Tanner House to execute a Block Cleanup of the 2900 Block of Diamond St, inclusive of a children’s book giveaway and free catered neighborhood luncheon. Close-Up Cleaning Crew photo courtesy of the Friends of the Tanner House.

In designing our preservation planning strategy, we recognized that the Black heritage of North Central Philadelphia we know and love remains threatened by forces of racialized displacement and premature death that impacts its low-income Black residents as well as the ecosystem of community arts and cultural institutions that serve them.

This informed our commitment to an accessible, inclusive, equitable engagement process invites our focus neighborhood of North Central Philadelphia to not only reflect on the presence of invaluable histories that must be sustained, but additionally recognizes the collective power that can be amplified by multigenerational residents joining together to address the roots of inequitable policies and practices that stand against their neighborhood’s opportunity to thrive.

Group of African American people sitting at a large table working with paper and other materials inside a room.

Current Friends of the Tanner House Artist Partner Qiaira Riley curated an offering of a free ceramics workshop intertwining Black liberation and spirituality inspired by the lives of Sarah Elizabeth and Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner at the Cecil B. Moore Library. Robin Williams-Turnage is guiding the workshop participants. Documented by Christian Hayden, submitted courtesy of the Friends of the Tanner House.

It was critical that our project centered the specific ways Black folks have shaped and reshaped Philadelphia. It emboldened us to grow and sustain a transformative community cultural platform for and by the heart, hands, and imagination of Black Philadelphia’s everyday lives.

This principle, we would later learn, is further underscored by recent research led by Landmarks Illinois CEO Bonnie McDonald about making preservation tools more accessible, just and responsive as imperative for the field’s relevant future. For us nationally to advance a “just preservation movement”, she suggests:

“To be more relevant to more people, the places we help preserve must include more people and tell the stories valued by, and reflective of, our increasingly diverse nation. Who decides which places are saved must be an inclusive process where people are respected and valued, treated with fairness and dignity, and lead the decision-making. Until we address implicit bias and our field’s embedded unjust practices, including those tied to land-use policies, we will continue to be exclusive.”

Funded by the Mellon Foundation, The Friends of the Tanner House (FOTH) alongside support from the Center for the Preservation of Civil Rights Sites (CPCRS) are leading an arts-rich participatory planning and preservation visioning process that invites community voices to provide input into the rehabilitation and proposed re-use of the Henry Ossawa Tanner House.

We’ve developed a survey tool to emerge resident-driven research about the various strategies our neighbors believe to be critical to placekeeping, fighting back against the imposition of displacement, dispossession, and cultural erasure.

Early results from this neighborhood-rooted research are expected in Summer 2024, informing a public report that will be utilized simultaneously to inform the physical revitalization strategy of the Henry Ossawa Tanner House as well as articulate resident-driven advocacy opportunities for programming / resources to move forward the collective neighborhood arts+culture ecosystem.

Chart with Tanner House logo, spaces for name, age, and Zip Code, and directions above a table with fives spaces for responses.

: After some pilot testing, the Friends of the Tanner House simplified the project survey into the frame of “What does it take for love to thrive in our neighborhood?”, utilizing subquestions to draw out various perspectives. The survey can work well for individuals to write out on their own, or as we found quite enriching, at the center of small group conversation during community programming. Courtesy of the Friends of the Tanner House. Download a sample and send us your responses at:!

This survey strategy draws inspiration from poet and activist June Jordan’s process for a Harlem housing and community redesign project in the 1960s. Before simplifying into the current survey questions you see, we began with a remix of this insightful inquiry to reflect our contemporary desires for community cultural organizing in North Philadelphia:

“What kind of community invitations (to collectively gather) and what kind of heritage preservation practices (to collectively reflect) and what kind of educational spaces (to collectively study) and what kind of healing narratives (to collectively spread) and what kind of beautiful experiments (to collectively organize) make love an easy, reasonable public response?”

This emergent community-driven, poetic process is meant to integrate within the long-term strategy for revitalizing the House and establishing collective buy-in for its sustainability. In terms of next steps, we are raising capital for the development of a Historic Structure Report (HSR) for the Henry Ossawa Tanner House, which we intend to include more historical research that considers the influence of other Tanner family accomplishments not included in the original historic register nomination.

This traditional HSR will be paired alongside our community-engagement data, informing the recruitment of an architectural firm to move us from these sources of information and inspiration to the professional development of construction-level design plans. The latter phase calls for the recruitment of a high-quality, preservation-oriented contractor team to execute the plan, so that the Henry Ossawa Tanner House may open to the public. We would love it to be ready by the Semiquincentennial in 2026, but as experts have forewarned us, this work requires patience.

As we publicly share a bit of our case study in progress, we’ve arrived at a couple important lessons for ourselves and our peers as we continually meditate upon how to live up to them within the long-haul of our organizational practices:

  • We believe that preservation planning teams should strategize accessible, inclusive community engagement opportunities that share relatable stories about people and historic places to create valuable, memorable and momentum-building neighborhood experiences.
  • We believe in designing participatory processes where people’s insights, feedback, and criticism are respected and valued, treated with fairness and dignity, and ultimately included within the decision-making around historic site stewardship, preservation, and adaptive re-use.
  • We believe that by centering the importance of community coalition building imbues preservation as a tool and platform for confronting risks of displacement and dispossession in low-income neighborhoods of color.

In conclusion, we see our work as the Friends of the Tanner House, and expand out to invite preservation workers statewide, as grounding ourselves into honoring the grand, oft unheralded accomplishments many generations have made in neighborhoods placed-at-risk as a reminder that we all can contribute to a beloved, healing-centered history every day we (re)commit ourselves to love of oneself, of our communities, of the land and life itself.


Christopher R. Rogers, Ph.D currently co-coordinates the Friends of The Tanner House, incubating a revitalized Henry Ossawa Tanner House at the intersection of Black heritage preservation and community cultural organizing. He has previously served in key roles with the Paul Robeson House & Museum / West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, Philadelphia Student Union, Teacher Action Group Philadelphia, and more. A recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, his dissertation research explored the intergenerational ways that Black West Philadelphia residents express their personhood and collective possibility through multimodal poetics and place-making literacies.