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Alethia Tanner Day honors enslaved woman who bought her freedom

Tanner sold vegetables at President’s Park and saved enough money to purchase the freedom of her family members

Susan Cook, a descendant of Alethia Tanner, speaks during a dedication ceremony at Alethia Tanner Park in Washington on July 23. (Craig Hudson for the Washington Post)
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It would cost $275 for Alethia Tanner to buy her freedom, but she finally managed to do it. On July 6, 1810, Tanner gave that amount to Joseph Dougherty, a coachman for Thomas Jefferson, who used it to purchase Tanner’s freedom from her owner, Rachel Pratt, who sold Tanner that same day. On July 10, Dougherty freed Tanner.

Born around 1785 in Upper Marlboro, Md., Alethia “Lethe” Browning Tanner grew up enslaved with her two sisters on a plantation near the Patuxent River in Maryland. Tanner’s older sister, Sophia Browning Bell, kept a small garden where she grew vegetables that she would sell at markets in Alexandria and the District.

Alethia’s skill as a gardener allowed her to adopt a similar endeavor when she began selling vegetables at President’s Park, now Lafayette Square, right outside the White House, while she was doing domestic work for President Thomas Jefferson. After buying her freedom, Tanner helped free dozens of members of her family.

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On Saturday, the first Alethia Tanner Day was celebrated at Alethia Tanner Park in D.C.’s NoMa neighborhood to recognize Tanner’s achievements. The park itself officially opened in June 2020, but the pandemic forced the NoMa Parks Foundation to open sections of the park in waves.

The road to the park began in 2013, according to Robin-Eve Jasper, president of the foundation, when NoMa first made a bid for the formerly vacant space.

Jasper said the foundation had presented the mayor and D.C. Council with a vision of a park. When the park was under construction, the foundation issued a call for names from community members. The community, she said, rallied around using Tanner’s name.

In March 2019, Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) introduced legislation to name the park after Alethia Tanner, and the council later passed the legislation.

“We’re hoping this can be an opportunity to celebrate the values that came through in Tanner’s life,” Jasper said. “We want to focus on and encourage young Black women and support entrepreneurs.”

At the dedication, D.C. Parks and Recreation Director Delano Hunter said the park will inspire visitors.

“When people look back on Alethia Tanner Park 100 years from now, they’ll get a glimpse into what we value,” Hunter said. “If you look at her values, they’re not just inspiration, they’re aspirational, and it’s about putting our mark on society and what we value.”

Amber Hewitt, director of the D.C. mayor’s Office of Racial Equity, recognized Tanner’s commitment to creating a better life for herself and others.

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“Alethia Tanner did what many Washingtonians are doing today: using her entrepreneurial spirit to carve her own path to build a better way for her community,” Hewitt said.

Jasper said Susan Cook, an exhibit designer for Montgomery County parks system and a direct descendant of Tanner, shared the research she’d conducted into Tanner, as well as primary documents.

“She’s always been an inspiration to me,” Cook said. “As I’ve grown up, that story of her selflessness and wanting to uplift her community always resonated with me.”

Susan Cook’s brother, Peter Cook, said Tanner’s name will live on in the park.

“The fact that it’s a park really embraces all of the things that she stood for,” he said. “It speaks to the values that she had, and that’s how I hope she’s best remembered.”

Susan Cook said other women entrepreneurs of color will carry on Tanner’s legacy.

“We don’t really celebrate people such as Alethia, and I think this is a great starting point,” she said. “I feel prideful as a descendant, but I’m excited to see other people’s responses to her story. I’m excited to see the spirit of Alethia gain traction with people.”

Susan Cook said it was remarkable to learn Tanner’s name had such overwhelming support from the city. She also said the park is a living memorial to Tanner’s perseverance.

“You die three times. First time is when your body dies, second time is when you’re laid in the ground, and the third time is when people stop saying your name,” Cook said. “It’s awe-inspiring that her name will continue to resonate with people.”