Tancil, Gladys Quander

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Gladys Quander Tancil


Historical interpreter

Gladys Quander Tancil shone a beacon of light on slave life at Mount Vernon, George Washington's Virginian estate. The first African-American historical interpreter to work at Mount Vernon, Tancil led a transformation in the historical perspective the national monument offered its visitors. Tancil hailed directly from former slaves of the Washingtons and offered visitors a glimpse of what life was like for slaves at Mt. Vernon. Rather than an exclusive view of George and Martha Washington's life at Mt. Vernon, Tancil spoke of her own ancestors' history. Using an oral tradition handed down through generations, Tancil recounted more than just the daily routines of Washington's slaves; she also told stories about them that reinforced who they were as individuals. Tancil brought to life those who might otherwise have been forgotten.

Gladys Rebecca Quander (pronounced Guan-do) was born in Washington, D.C., in 1921. The Quander family has deep roots in America: family members were among the first slaves brought to the colonies in the 1600s. Tracing its lineage back more than three centuries to Ghana, the Quander family members in America made their homes mainly in Maryland and Virginia. Tancil's grandfather, Charles Henry Quander, was born in Maryland and sold as a slave to a Virginia lawyer. During the Civil War, Union soldiers helped him learn to read and write in exchange for his kind offerings of food. Two years after the 1862 Emancipation Proclamation granted him his freedom, Quander had earned enough money working for his former owner to purchase two acres of land and to build a two-room house near Alexandria. His small farm would grow to include produce and dairy on 88 acres, and on it his son James Henry Quander, Tancil's father, was born in 1882. The Quander farm supplied the local market and sold milk to Mount Vernon, George Washington's farm. Tancil spent her entire life living on the property of that same family farm in the Alexandria portion of Fairfax County.

The Quander family has worked hard to document its family history and to keep alive its oral traditions. Tancil grew up surrounded by family members, soaking in stories about her relatives. Since 1926, the extended Quander family has come together for annual family reunions that help reinforce its familial bonds. In 1984, the family organization, Quanders United, published a book on the occasion of the family's tricentennial in the United States. Rohulamin Quander, founder of the Quander Historical Society, has done extensive genealogical research in Ghana and in America and can count back ten generations in Quander family history. She declared that the will of Henry Adams of Maryland dated 1684 is the oldest documentation of a slave being freed in America; that slave was a Quander, she told the Ghana National Commission on Culture.

The broad details of much of Tancil's life depict her as a hard-working mother of two. Her marriage to Herbert Tancil in 1943 ended in divorce, and she then raised her son and daughter as a single mother. She worked for a time as a cleaning woman at Mount Vernon, just as more than a handful of her relatives had before her. Her career consisted of more than 30 years as an administrative assistant and clerk in the U.S. government, at offices in the Navy Department, the Office of Emergency Management, which became the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Tancil's career, however, would not be her legacy.

Upon retirement from government service in the 1970s, Tancil started work on what would become a crusade to preserve the history of her ancestors. Tancil was hired in 1973 as the first African-American historical interpreter at Mount Vernon, and the only person descended directly from slaves owned by Washington. Her ancestor Nancy Carter Quander spun yarn at Mount Vernon until Washington's will set her free upon his wife Martha's death in 1802; young Nancy was 13 years old. Tancil could offer Nancy Quander's and other slaves' stories to the visitors at Mount Vernon.

Steeped in the oral history of her family, Tancil was a gifted storyteller. Her daughter Gloria Tancil Holmes recalled her mother's gift to the Washington Post, saying that even if "I had heard the story 40 or 50 times … I wanted to hear it again." Before Tancil's arrival, tours at Mount Vernon concentrated on the lives of George and Martha Washington. Tancil offered some of the first and most vibrant stories of slave life at Mount Vernon. In her multiple daily tours, Tancil contrasted the work and leisure time of house slaves and field slaves. She offered stories about what George and Martha Washington were like as slave owners. She described the real slave quarters as being less luxurious than the reconstructed wooden shacks on display. She pointed out the meager portions of food and supplies the slaves survived on. But more importantly, Tancil could speak about the slaves as individuals, telling stories handed down for years about particular people and families. While vivid, her stories were also blunt; she did not let visitors forget that these people had been slaves. "She didn't sugarcoat anything," observed Rebecca A. Willow in her dissertation "Propensity to Engage in Interracial Dialogue on Race: A Descriptive Study of Participants and Contributing Factors."

Tancil's commitment to her ancestry went beyond her historical tours. Tancil worked hard to memorialize the lives of her ancestors. After years of lobbying, she helped to secure a slave memorial at Mount Vernon in 1983. In 1991 Tancil participated in a film project produced by Black Women for United Action and the Fairfax County schools that recorded her family's and other blacks' roots in the area through a series of interviews. Shown on the local television station, the film eventually became a part of the school curriculum. She helped the Alexandria Black History Resource Center feature an exhibit of Quander family heirlooms in 1992. The "Quander Family: Farm to Market" exhibit, which depicted the family's historical roots in the community, included photographs, property deeds, and household items. Tancil told the Washington Post at the time of the exhibit that it offered visitors a glimpse of "how a slave gained his freedom and struggled to maintain his existence."

Tancil was so committed to her cause that she kept giving tours at Mount Vernon until, at 80 years old, osteoporosis had made it impossible for her to stand. Her reason for such dedication was recorded in the Washington Post: "I'm down there just to make sure they don't forget," she said. And because of her work, no one will. Tancil died of cancer on November 5, 2002, at Mount Vernon Nursing Center in Alexandria.

At a Glance …

Born Gladys Rebecca Quander, in 1921, in Washington, D.C.; died on November 5, 2002, in Alexandria, VA; married Herbert P. Tancil III, June 6, 1946 (divorced); children: Gloria and Herbert IV. Education: Armstrong High School, VA, 1938. Religion: Baptist.

Career: U.S. government, Office of Emergency Management, Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and Navy Department, clerk, 194(?)–1970; Mt. Vernon, Alexandria, VA, historical interpreter, 1973–2001.

Memberships: Children's Home of Virginia Baptists, trustee; NAACP; Black Women United of Fairfax County; Society for the Preservation of Black Heritage, Alexandria, founding member.



Footsteps, November/December 2000, p. 4.

Washington Post, February 28, 1991, p. V3; February 13, 1992, p. 28; February 22, 2002, p. T43; December 1, 2002, p. C11.


"Annual Celebration of America's Oldest Black Family," Ghana National Commission on Culture, http://ghanaculture.gov.gh/index1.php?linkid=344#645 (September 7, 2006).

"FYI Alexandria," City of Alexandria, VA, http://alexandriava.gov/fyi_alexandria/june_06/fyi_june06_3.html (September 7, 2006).

"Senate Joint Resolution 401," Virginia State Legislature, http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?031+ful+SJ401ER (September 7, 2006).


Willow, Rebecca A., "Propensity to Engage in Interracial Dialogue on Race: A Descriptive Study of Participants and Contributing Factors," School of Education, Duquesne University, 2003.