Bannister, Christiana Carteaux, 1822-1903
Christiana Carteaux Bannister was born Christiana Babcock in Rhode Island’s South County sometime between 1820 and 1822. Details concerning her birth and background are obscure, but she appears to have been of mixed native American and African-American parentage and was undoubtedly descended from slaves that worked the plantations of South County during the eighteenth century.
As a young woman she moved to Boston and took up the trade of hairdressing. During her twenty-five year residence in Massachusetts she owned salons both in Boston and Worcester and prospered as an independent businesswoman and self-styled “hair doctress.” Christiana first married Desiline Carteaux, a Boston clothes dealer, probably of Carribean origin. After this union failed, she wed Canadian-born Edward Mitchell Bannister, who with her financial support, became one of America’s most successful black artists.
The Bannisters lived and worked with Lewis Hayden, a noted black activist, in the operation of Boston’s Underground Railroad assisting runaway slaves to maintain their freedom. During the Civil War, Mrs. Bannister helped to raise money to sustain the famous Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment of black soldiers, immortalized in the motion picture Glory.
After the Civil War, the Bannisters moved to Providence where Christiana opened another salon and became a patron of the arts. She was deeply involved in improving the lives of African-American women and founded the Home for Aged and Colored Women at 45 East Transit Street, a facility that evolved into today’s Bannister Nursing Care Center on Dodge Street in Providence. Christiana Bannister’s significance is that she rose above the constraints that her era placed upon women and minorities and moved with facility and effectiveness among all levels of society from runaway slaves to Providence’s artistic community. She was a remarkable civic leader and humanitarian. Christiana died in 1902 and was buried in her husband’s plot in the North Burial Ground. Ironically her name does not appear on the large gravestone erected in his honor, but a bronze bust of Christiana, based upon a portrait painted by her husband, was dedicated at the State House in December, 2002.