Baby name story: Ossawa

American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937)
Henry Ossawa Tanner

Henry Ossawa Tanner, who was born in Pittsburgh in 1859, became the first African-American artist to achieve international recognition.

Where did the painter’s unusual middle name come from?

His parents, Benjamin and Sarah Tanner, coined it to commemorate the 1856 Battle of Osawatomie, during which white abolitionist John Brown tried to defend the Kansas town of Osawatomie from pro-slavery “border ruffians.”

John Brown’s heroic struggle symbolized for black people their quest for freedom. Thus, for Benjamin and Sarah, Ossawa embodied the hope for emancipation.

The town’s name is a portmanteau of the names of two nearby streams: the Osage River and Pottawatomie Creek. The streams, in turn, were named after two local Native American tribes: the Osage and the Potawatomi.

Henry Ossawa Tanner later passed the name down to his son, Jesse Ossawa Tanner, who was born in 1903.


Image: Henry Ossawa Tanner

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