Two Influential African-American Families in Norwood
This story begins in the aftermath of the U. S. Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. Two Black families move to Norwood.
Using photos donated or loaned to the Society’s Archives and published records, here is their story – both in Norwood and beyond, as they made their mark in the wider world.
Alfred Weems Tanneyhill
• Born November 29, 1867 in Frederick, Maryland. Died March 13, 1947 in Norwood, Mass.
• Son of Aaron & Elizabeth Weems Tanneyhill.
• At the time of Alfred’s birth, Aaron (his father) was “Court House Keeper” at the Frederick County Courtouse.
• The Diggs and Tanneyhill families were friends in Frederick, Maryland, and both families moved to Massachusetts, settling in Norwood around 1888.
• Alfred worked for the Day family from c.1888 through Fred’s death in 1933.
Earlier scholars argued that Alfred Tanneyhill posed as a model for Fred Holland Day’s photos, such as this one. This is incorrect.
Recent scholars, among them Dr. Fanning, have identified this model as J. Alexandre Skeete, a professional model working in the Boston areaaround 1900.
To learn more about Black artist models around this time, check out the catalog from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum exhibit, “Boston’s Apollo: Thomas McKeller and John Singer Sargent” or click here to visit the virtual exhibit.
Adelaide “Addie” Olivia Grandison Tanneyhill
• Born October 31, 1874 in Cambridge, Mass. Daughter of William Grandison II & Eliza Ann Taylor. Her younger sister was Sarah “Sadie” Grandison Diggs.
• Worked as a typesetter in Norwood’s printing presses.
• Married Alfred Tanneyhill on October 14, 1903. They had 4 children: Alfred Clayton Tanneyhill, Anna Elizabeth Tanneyhill, William Aaron Tanneyhill, & Gertrude Alberta Tanneyhill.
• Alfred and Adelaide lived at 32 Day Street, Norwood.
• Died 10 October 1950.
Anna (Ann) Elizabeth Tanneyhill
• Born January 19, 1906 in Norwood.
• Named after Anna M. Day & Elizabeth Weems (paternal grandmother).
• As a youth worked as a researcher for Fred Holland Day.
• For more than fifty years Ann worked with The National Urban League, as Assistant Director for Public Relations and Director of Conferences, among many other posts.
• Died May 15, 2001 in Mashpee. You can read her full obituary in The New York Times here.
I was in [Norwood] high school and I thought I wanted to go to BU [Boston University] to take the two-year secretarial course because I had not thought about going to college, and I was taking the business course in high school. When Mr. Day learned that I wanted to go, he said, “BU is no good.” He said, “The best place to go is Simmons College.” Well, I had never heard of Simmons College. I said, “Well, I want to go to BU and it’s only a two-year course.” And he said, “Well, Simmons College will give you a college degree.” He said, “If you continue to work for me a little longer, I’ll pay your first year’s tuition to Simmons.” … I said, “This is great.” But I did not have the qualifications for admissions to Simmons, so I went back to high school and took a postgraduate course and took French I and French II, because I had no languages, and algebra and math, all the same year, and was admitted to Simmons the following September. … And at that point came my first contact with other young black people, other than the few that I’ve mentioned.
– Black Women Oral History Project Interview with Ann Tanneyhill, August 11, 1978. Full transcript of the interview is available online here: https://iiif.lib.harvard.edu/manifests/view/drs:45175356$1i
To learn more about the National Urban League, with which Ann Tanneyhill worked tirelessly for so many years, visit their website at http://www.nul.org
Gertrude Alberta Tanneyhill Cuthbert
• Born April 4, 1918 in Norwood. Graduated Norwood High in 1935, and Simmons College in 1939.
• Served as Trustee of Morrill Memorial Library, 1956 – 1965.
• Married Charles H. Cuthbert July 3, 1964. Died March 18, 1995.
• Worked for ABCD (Action for Boston Community Development), the Urban League.
• Appointed the first Chairwoman of the Massachusetts State Parole Board by Governor Mike Dukakis during his first term.
The Grandison sisters unite the Tanneyhill and Diggs families. Born in Cambridge, Mass., to William Grandison, II, and Eliza Ann Taylor, 2 of the 7 sisters marry and move to Norwood: Adelaide Olivia Grandison married Alfred Tanneyhill, and Sarah Eliza Grandison married Charles Tanner Diggs in October 1897.
Charles Tanner Diggs
• Born 4 August 1868 (Frederick, Maryland); died 28 February 1929 (Norwood, MA)
• Lived at 368 Washington Street, Norwood in a house built by his brother, Richard Diggs. In the 1920s, the family moved to 439 Washington Street. The house at 439 stayed in the family until 2019.
• Married Sara Eliza Grandison (October 1897)
Sarah Grandison and Charles T. Diggs had five sons. Melvin (born 1904) died in infancy (1905) and is buried in Highland Cemetery, Norwood. The remaining four sons were all highly accomplished and distinguished. This is part of their story.
We are still researching Sarah and Charles and welcome any details you have!
Sarah “Sadie” Eliza Grandison Diggs
• Born 21 July 1876 in Boston to William & Eliza Ann (Taylor) Grandison.
• Sister to Adelaide Grandison Tanneyhill.
• Died 15 March 1968 in Boston.
We continue researching Sarah “Sadie” Eliza Grandison Diggs. Check back for more!
George Lyles Diggs
• Born June 10, 1899 in Boston.
• Died November 8, 1985.
• Graduated from MIT in the class of 1926, pursuing Course VI.
• Played violin and sometimes performed with his brother, Hi.
We’d love to know more about George Lyle Diggs.
We found him listed alongside his brother, Hi, and in Dianna E. Abney’s “Notes on Researching Blacks at MIT.” There’s more work to be done to tell his story.
Henry William Diggs
Mr. Diggs was a longstanding member of the United Church of Norwood, the Norwood Fair Housing Committee, the HESCO elder services board, the Rotary Club and Elks Lodge #1124. He was the longest-running member of the Norwood town meeting, serving since its inception. He also served as a member of the School Committee (1960-1978), and on the Norwood High School Educational Foundation board. He was a member of the Neponset Valley Tufts Club and served as a radio repairman for the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II.
Growing up with three siblings and four first cousins of the Alfred Tanneyhill family of Norwood, Mr. Diggs and his relatives were the first African-Americans to settle in Norwood. He spent his entire life in the family home.
• Born November 25, 1906 in Boston. Died January 15, 2003.
• Henry and his wife, Irma U. Thompson Diggs, were very active in Norwood town politics.
• Lived in Norwood all his life – briefly at 368 Washington Street, then at 439 Washington Street.
• Served as a radio repairman for the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II.
• Attended Wentworth Institute.
• Worked as a pressman at Norwood Press, Wellesley Press, & Codex Book Co.
In a newspaper article from 1968 Henry Diggs mentions he and his wife are two of Norwood’s 26 African-American residents.
Highland (Highlie, or Hi) Leslie Diggs
• Born November 15, 1911 in Boston.
• Married Alice Barbarosa.
• Died July 4, 1992 in Brockton.
• Jazz musician, pianist, and composer, well-known in Boston and nationally.
Charles Winston Diggs
• Born January 18, 1920 in Norwood.
• Married Myrtle Foree, 5 July 1945.
•Died August 11, 2010.
• Served as a Tuskegee Airman, grad- uating as a 2nd Lt. on February 8, 1944, class TE-44-B.
Check out Red Tails: An Oral History of the Tuskegee Airmen by John B. Holway to learn more about these airmen.
we continue researching the Tanneyhill & Diggs families. check back for updates. IF YOU HAVE ANY INFORMATION TO SHARE, PLEASE REACH OUT!