By Norwood Historical Society Board Members Laurie Kearney, Linda Rau and Karen DeNapoli
To commemorate Black History Month and to honor the first Black woman from Norwood who achieved professional status and recognition in the Urban League, it is with pride that we present Ann (Anna) Elizabeth Tanneyhill. Ann was a civil rights activist before her time—she was called “The Urban League Jewel of New England.”
In 1906, there were two Black families living in Norwood—the Diggs family and the Tanneyhill family. Mrs. Diggs and Mrs. Tanneyhill were sisters. Anna was born January 19, 1906 in Boston to Adelaide (Grandison) Tanneyhill and Alfred Tanneyhill. She was named for Anna Day and her paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Weems, and chose to be known as “Ann” in her adult life.
In 1917, she was a member of the Norunda Camp Fire Girls of Norwood. She grew up and was educated in Norwood—graduating from Norwood High School in 1923. Alfred was a coachman and butler to the Day family. Her mother was a typesetter at the J.S. Cushing Company. Anna’s maternal grandfather was one of the first Black trade union members in the country and the first Black man to attend Dalhousie College in Halifax.
As a young girl, Ann worked with Fred Holland Day collecting material for a genealogical study of the Day family and a history of Norwood. She attended Simmons College on the advice of and with tuition assistance from Fred Holland Day and graduated in 1928.
Her first job was with the Urban League (UL) in Springfield. Ann started working at the UL in New York and began her master’s degree in vocational guidance and personnel administration at Columbia University. In 1938, she was the first Black person to receive this degree and the first woman at the UL to acquire professional status.
From 1931-1946, Ann directed the Vocational Opportunity Campaign for Young Blacks. She felt that Black boys and girls should be encouraged to enter any field they have the interest, aptitude and ability for. Ann wrote booklets, speeches and radio scripts and organized seminars. She worked for Black employment on the subways, the telephone company, and the defense industry during WWll. In the 1960s Ann continued to work and bring pressure on various industries—particularly in the insurance field. In 1961, she was appointed Assistant Director for Public Relations.
During her 50-year career, Ann was a mentor to thousands of Black students and teachers. One of these young students was Coretta Scott, who became the wife of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Ann served on the board of the National Vocational and Guidance Assoc., where she fought to abolish the segregated chapters. In 1970, the Ann Tanneyhill Award was established by the UL. In 1971, she received the Simmons College Alumnae Award. In 1971, Ann retired from the UL but continued on as a special assistant.
Ann retired to Mashpee where she lived next door to her sister, Gertrude. She and her brother, William, operated a service station and general store in town. She was chairwoman of the Mashpee Historical Commission, where she collected material and artifacts on the American Indians. The present-day collection is named in her honor.
Ann (Anna) Elizabeth Tanneyhill passed on May 15, 2001, in her 95th year.
You can learn more about the Tanneyhill and Diggs families and find additional resources about Ann Tanneyhill here.