When Ernest “Ernie” Tanner came to Whitworth in 1908 to play quarterback, fullback and halfback for the football team, he was, according to The Oregonian, the first African American to compete on any collegiate team in the Northwest. While his accomplishments at Whitworth are remarkable, the rest of his life’s story is even more inspiring.
Tanner’s father was a trapeze artist, and his mother was a nurse. When the couple moved their family to Tacoma, in 1900, Tanner attended Stadium High School, where he soon emerged as an outstanding athlete in track, basketball, baseball and football. During his year at Whitworth, in 1908-09, he helped lead the football team to a win against the mighty University of Oregon. His obituary identified him as once being named “the greatest athlete ever developed in the Northwest.” After attending Whitworth, Tanner played in Tacoma’s Negro League and was captain and manager of the Tacoma Little Giants baseball team.
Tanner worked in Tacoma as an elevator operator, and in 1918 he joined the Tacoma chapter of the International Brotherhood of Longshoremen. In an era when racial discrimination was common against African Americans in the labor movement, Tanner rose to a position of leadership. He served as a trustee of Local 38-97, and was a member of the union’s executive board. From the beginning, he insisted that African American dockworkers be paid the same wages and enjoy the same working conditions as white longshoremen.
Tanner’s defining moment as a longshoreman came in 1934 during a bitter strike. As the only African American on the strike committee, he worked closely with labor leader Harry Bridges to keep black and white workers united during the strike and to make it difficult for employers to break the union. In 1936, Tanner’s peers elected him chair of the union publicity committee.
In 1950 the Tacoma longshoremen built a new union hall and elected Tanner to chair the building committee. In 1996, the building was dedicated as the Ernest C. Tanner Labor and Ethnic Studies Center, and it is now part of the University of Washington’s Tacoma campus.
Tanner’s legacy endured through the life and career of his son. Born in 1919, Jack Tanner was, like his father, a standout student-athlete at Stadium High School. After his graduation, father and son worked together on the docks, and Jack went on to earn a law degree at the University of Washington. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the federal bench; he was the first African American federal judge west of the Mississippi.
Ernie Tanner did not live to see his son sworn in; he died in Tacoma in 1956. He was survived by his wife, Irene, his son, and a daughter.