Meeting the Bannisters
Despite stomping through three feet of snow to walk the perimeter of the home at 93 Benevolent Street, I wasn’t able to see much of anything (note to self: when snooping around vacant properties after a winter of heavy snow, do not wear high heeled boots). I peered through windows, and found the walls stripped down to their studs; a radiator sat abandoned in the middle of the living room. A mountain of snow blocked access to the front door, and the sign marking it as property of Brown University, and the former home of the Bannisters, had been suspiciously removed.
While I didn’t learn a lot from trudging around the property, I learned a great deal about the home and its two most famous renters through talking with Ray Rickman, historian and former President of the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society. Edward and Christiana Bannister were an extraordinary African American couple who lived among the elites of 19th century Providence. Edward met Christiana as a barber working in her hair salon in Boston, and he went on to becoming one of the most celebrated and prolific artists in the country. In 1880 he was one of the founding members, the only one of color, of the Providence Art Club.
Click here for a nice collection of his paintings.
But as Mr. Rickman told me, little of this would have been possible without the support of his wife Christiana. He quoted Edward saying, “Without her, I would have been nothing.” Christiana owned popular hair salons in Providence and Boston, and sold hair product. She was very successful. Mr. Rickman guessed that she was the only black woman in Rhode Island with a substantial business outside the home in the late 19th century. A decade older than Edward, her income made it possible for Edward to concentrate on his painting. She was also an abolitionist and philanthropist, opening the Home for Aged and Colored Women, and helping black soldiers coming back from the Civil War. I was amazed to learn how much Edward and Christiana were able to accomplish during one of the most racially divided times in our country.
From 1884 to 1899 they rented the home at 93 Benevolent Street. Little remains of the home they lived in, having gone through an extensive renovation in the 1930’s to house the antiques of Euchlin Reeves. It’s owned by Brown University today, and for a time was used for storing not art, but refrigerators. It was put on the PPS’s Most Endangered Properties list in 2001. I’m told that Brown intends to restore the building for use as university housing. I hope that happens soon, from my vantage point it was looking sad and forgotten.
Fun Fact: Edward Bannister came to national attention in 1876, when his four-by-five-foot painting Under the Oaks won a first-prize medal at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. The award was nearly denied to him when the committee discovered, upon his approaching the stage, that he was black. From what I understand, that painting has gone missing. But here’s a sketch:
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UPDATE 3/30! I GOT INSIDE! Here are some pics of what I found: