Interviewee: Marietta J. Tanner
Interviewers: Mark Naison, Donna Joseph, Saudah Muhammad
Date: July 2020
Summarized by Sophia Maier
Marietta J. Tanner was born in 1928 in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania. Influenced by the activism of her father and the wartime experiences of her uncle, Marietta is a life-long political activist. Her parents explained to her from a young age their experiences in Jim Crow era Pennsylvania and by the age of six she was passing out political pamphlets and registering people to vote with the rest of her family. After attending a segregated school in her youth and a brief period at Temple University, she went to what is now West Virginia State University, where she joined the Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) sorority. There she was a part of their activism affiliated with the NAACP and their efforts to integrate schools. After college, she moved to Harlem in 1949, before moving to the Bronx after getting married in 1960. Originally living on Hone Avenue in the majority-Italian neighborhood surrounding Arthur Avenue and Belmont where she faced a lot of prejudice, she would eventually settle down in the Tremont section until the 90’s.
Her activism continued strong through the 50’s and 60’s in New York. As soon as she moved to the city, she registered to vote and began going door to door to encourage people to register and sign petitions. She worked closely with the Urban League and the HARYOU Act Program in Harlem, while also writing a column in the Amsterdam News called “The Community’s Conscience” for close to ten years about the black experience in the Bronx. Marietta’s work in the Bronx also focused on Parents for Leadership and Action Now (PLAN), a group of Bronx parents that fought primarily for school integration and more black teachers under the Lindsay administration, and involvement in St. Augustine’s Presbyterian Church, which was known for its Civil Rights activism.
It was through these experiences that she helped found the Etta Omega Omega chapter of AKA. Working with Olga Garrett and inspired by the work of HARYOU Act where Drs. Clark and Seifert encouraged a knowledge of black history going back to Africa, not merely enslavement, Marietta and others founded this chapter. Etta Omega Omega was involved in efforts to decrease segregation in Bronx high schools like Taft and increase the amount of black teachers in these schools. Their work in encouraging the hiring of people of color expanded to helping Representative Adam Clayton Powell with his mission for “maximum participation of the poor.”
Today, Marietta hopes that the sisters in Eta Omega Omega do not forget about their commitment for service in addition to the sisterhood and community building that comes with being part of a sorority. She encourages them to “go where the people are, ” to register them to vote or to get children in the Headstart programs. At the very least, she encourages going directly to teenagers to teach them the comradery and drive for change that comes about as being part of a black sorority.
Politics, activism, race, Bronx Slave Market, Eta Omega Omega, Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA), Philadelphia, Tremont, Arthur Avenue, Civil Rights Movement, Child Welfare League of America, NAACP, Urban League, HARYOU Act, Adam Clayton Powell, Amsterdam News, Parents for Leadership and Action Now (PLAN), Taft High School, Malcom X, Ossie Davis, Jews, Maxine Sullivan, district 12, St. Augustine’s, segregation, integration, John Henrik Clarke, Puerto Rican
Naison, Mark, "Tanner, Marietta J." (2020). Oral Histories. 339.