By the early 1860’s, Susan Webb Tinsley was the queen of Black society in Cincinnati. She and her husband John Tinsley entertained lavishly at their home on Seventh Street.
Susan Webb was born in Virginia around 1818. She came to Cincinnati where in 1834, she married John R. Tinsley, a successful carpenter. By 1861, they were living at 262 W. 7th Street, in a large house that no longer exists. Journalist Wendell Dabney, in his 1926 book, Cincinnati’s Colored Citizens, writes this:
“A half century ago, in a three-story brick building on Seventh Street, between Central Avenue and John Street, lived Mr. and Mrs. John Tinsley. They were owners of the house and the magnificent furniture it contained. Money was of slightest consideration, since he worked for clubs and high grade gamblers… .”
Dabney goes on: “Mrs. Tinsley, a brilliant woman for her race and time, was society’s queen. None came to dispute the sovereignty of the Tinsleys, but the Thomases” (that is, the family of photographer Alexander Thomas).
Susan Webb Tinsley was also an agent on the Underground Railroad. A later article in the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune says that Susan Tinsley was “Prominent among the very active colored survivors of the slave rescue work in this city” and “kept open house for the hunted fugitives of her race.”
Susan and John Tinsley’s children included a daughter named Ann, born in 1835. Ann Tinsley was a talented singer and pianist. By 1850, Ann was studying music in the preparatory department at Oberlin College. Within a few years she had her own singing group, called the Annie E. Tinsley Concert Troupe, which toured widely.
Sometime prior to 1872, John R. Tinsley was appointed turnkey for the Oliver Street police station. (By this time, the Cincinnati police had begun to hire African Americans for inside work, though it would still be some years before African Americans were permitted to serve as patrol officers.)
John R. Tinsley died in February 1872. “For the first time in the history of our city,” the Cincinnati Commercial reported, “the police force yesterday followed a colored man’s body to its grave.” A white officer named Isaac Robinson refused to attend because Tinsley was Black. As a result, Robinson got fired, and the precedent was established that police officers must attend the funeral of a brother officer, regardless of race.
Even after John Tinsley’s death, Susan Tinsley continued entertaining on a large scale. After an event in August 1872, the Cincinnati Commercial reported that “The affair was a brilliant one, the house being crowded with guests who were splendidly entertained by Madame Susan Tinsley, the hostess.”
In 1880, Susan Tinsley was still living on Seventh Street. Her daughter Ann was with her, and so was Ann’s husband John H. Baltimore, a well-known barber. After that time, however, the family’s fortunes declined sharply.
Susan Tinsley sold the house on Seventh Street and moved to Sherman Avenue in Norwood. Her son-in-law John H. Baltimore died while on a trip to New Mexico in 1888. Her daughter Ann Tinsley Baltimore lost her eyesight. In 1900, Susan Tinsley told a census-taker that she had given birth to six children, but only one was still living – her daughter Ann.
Wendell Dabney recalled Susan Tinsley in her final days as “a gray-haired, tottering woman of four score and ten, impoverished, pauperized, but still cheerful.”
Susan Tinsley died on 24 December 1903. She was buried in Union Baptist Cemetery. Her funeral was only sparsely attended.
“[T]his woman who had thrown away thousands of dollars,” Dabney writes, “the woman at whose residence hundreds had been wined and dined, the woman who had dispensed charity with a royal hand, slept in a plain casket upon which hardly a handful of flowers found resting place. The last sad words, ‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ were heard by her poor blind daughter, once a society favorite, a few relatives and fewer friends.”
Susan Webb Tinsley doesn’t even have a tombstone. Records of Union Baptist Cemetery show that she is buried in Section B, in the south half of Lot 92. That’s just south of the grave of Martha Fortson, who has a clearly legible stone, but there’s no marker for Susan Tinsley.
“The tragedy of it all,” Wendell Dabney concludes, “was not that she had outlived her contemporaries, but that she had outlived her money.”