In the pre-Civil War era, Susan Webb Tinsley was the queen of Black society in Cincinnati. She and her husband entertained lavishly at their home on Seventh Street. Susan Tinsley was also an agent on the Underground Railroad.
Susan Webb was born in Virginia around 1818. She came to Cincinnati where in 1834, she married John R. Tinsley, a 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).
A later article in the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune about the Underground Railroad says that Susan Tinsley was “Prominent among the very active colored survivors of the slave rescue work in this city” and that she “kept open house for the hunted fugitives of her race.”
John R. Tinsley died in February 1872. Susan Tinsley continued entertaining on a large scale. After an event that August, 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 – a successful pianist and choir director – 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. Ann lost her eyesight. Ann’s husband John H. Baltimore died while on a trip to New Mexico. 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. The funeral was 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.”