George A. Tann’s gravesite in Independence, Kansas, identifies him as “a negro doctor that doctored the Ingalls for malaria in 1870.” Tann, who fought for the Union Army during the Civil War before uprooting to the Osage Diminished Indian Reserve from his native Pennsylvania, remains tied to the Ingalls family in popular memory because of his brief appearance in Pioneer Girl and Little House on the Prairie. Tann’s example, however, suggests the multifaceted nature of black settlement in the late-nineteenth-century American West, offering insight into the evolving constraints African Americans faced when seeking political, social, and economic freedom on the frontier.
Tann was among the seventeen thousand blacks who called Kansas home by 1870. The state’s relatively large black population reflected its abolitionist heritage. Following passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which let territorial residents decide whether to sanction slavery by popular vote, pro-slavery interests and abolitionists alike flooded the territory hoping to influence the coming election. A period of violent struggle popularly known as “Bleeding Kansas” ensued. Anti-slavery forces eventually prevailed, and Kansas entered the union as a free state on 29 January 1861, just before the start of the Civil War. Due to its proximity to slave states like Missouri and Arkansas, many of Kansas’s black residents were former slaves. In contrast, Tann had been born free in Pennsylvania. His migration reflected the growing status of Kansas as a haven for black Americans seeking political and economic freedoms unavailable even in the liberal north.1
Tann’s life also sheds light on African Americans’ shifting relationship to the medical profession. Tann, like many doctors of his time, received no formal training and worked on an on-call basis, providing medical care to Osage Indians and white settlers while also maintaining a homestead. A practitioner of homeopathic medicine, he likely learned the trade through an apprenticeship. Such arrangements became increasingly rare as the twentieth century approached, and organizations like the American Medical Association worked to establish shared standards for medical professionals. By century’s end, Kansas and Indian Territory—where Tann eventually moved his practice—would require that all doctors obtain a license through an examination.2 Medical school increasingly became the chief means of preparing doctors, but most of the leading institutions denied admission to blacks. Harvard Medical School, for example, admitted its first three black students in 1850 but expelled them only a year later following outcry from white students. Howard University Medical School, which opened in 1868, was the first to admit students without considering race or gender.
Discriminatory admissions practices at white-dominated medical schools persisted well into the twentieth century, leaving blacks underrepresented in the profession. By 1968, over sixty percent of all black medical school graduates attended either Howard or Meharry Medical School, a historically black institution in Nashville, Tennessee.3 Kansas’s perceived status as a site of opportunity for black Americans also waned in the decades following Tann’s arrival, as Jim Crow laws permitted cities to create racially segregated school districts. Tellingly, a black student in Topeka filed the lawsuit that led to the groundbreaking 1954 Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that segregated educational facilities were inherently unequal.4
George Tann died in 1909, remembered fondly for his service to the community. Like thousands of other African Americans, Tann moved to Kansas in search of opportunity. By the time of his death, however, new legal and extralegal forms of discrimination constrained black opportunity in Kansas and throughout the American West. Tann’s example nonetheless offers insight into a moment, however fleeting, when many black Americans saw the burgeoning cities and remote towns of the West as their surest path to freedom and equality.
1. Quintard Taylor, In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528–1990 (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1998), pp. 94–102.
2. Michelle L. McLellan, “There Is a Doctor in the House—and He’s Black,” Interpreting African American History at Museums and Historic Sites, ed. Max A. van Balgooy (Lanham, Mary.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), pp. 47–54.
3. American Medical Association, “African American Physicians and Organized Medicine, 1846–1968,” The History of African Americans and Organized Medicine, https://www.ama-assn.org/about/ama-history/history-african-americans-and-organized-medicine.
4. Alwyn Barr, “Jim Crow Laws,” Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, ed. David J. Wishart (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004), pp. 454–55.