Richard Fillmore Tancil, MD (ca. 1852–8 Mar 1928), was a Virginia-born physician, banker, property owner, and citizen activist who lived in Richmond from 1883 until his death in 1928. He was known as a kind and humorous man, beloved by his wife and children, his grandchildren, and his patients.
Early life in Fauquier — born into slavery
Richard was born in Fauquier County, Virginia, the son of Louisa Weathers (ca. 1811–1896). He was possibly born in 1860 but, due to the circumstances of his birth, no official record is known to exist. Louisa and her children were enslaved; the name of their slaveholder has not been confirmed. Before emancipation Louisa lived, at least for a time, at Silver Spring, the farm of Dr. Thomas Thornton Withers (1790–1865). Silver Spring was located in the Dixon Valley, near Marshall in Fauquier.
According to family oral history, some of Louisa’s children were fathered by her slaveholder and some by her husband, Isaac N. Tancil Sr. (1815–1897). Richard was said to be one of the children fathered by “his master.” Neither Richard, his mother, nor his siblings’ names have been found in the wills of Dr. Withers or his close family, so the history remains vague. Dr. Withers was known as a person of trust to some of the African-descent people of the region. He never married legally, yet is presumed to be the father of three children by Eliza Pleasants (b. ca. 1804), a woman he held in slavery. Dr. Withers granted freedom, money, and property to Eliza and their children in his will. The eldest of these children later married one of Dr. Tancil’s elder brothers.
There is no evidence at present that Dr. Withers fathered any of Louisa Weathers’s children. Dr. Tancil never spoke of his childhood to his grandchildren, considering such a degraded state worthy of forgetting. Rather, he preferred to focus on uplifting his community and building a secure future for his family.
Years in Alexandria
Like many newly freed Virginia families, the Tancils moved east and settled in Alexandria. Richard was the seventh child of a large family parented by Louisa and Isaac. The boys worked as cooks, waiters, tailors, and barbers, supporting each other and their parents. Richard was granted an MD from Howard Medical School in 1883. His younger brother Webb Tancil also earned a Howard MD three years later. Webb subsequently established a medical practice in Washington, D.C.
Life in Richmond
Soon after graduation from medical school, Richard moved to Richmond with his new bride (see below) to assume the position of assistant superintendent of the Central Asylum. Following two years of practice at that institution, he established what would become a successful general medical practice in Richmond’s Church Hill neighborhood. He was active in Republican politics and served as a member of the State Executive Committee. He was a Mason, a Knight of Pythias, and a member of the Baptist church. He was instrumental in founding the following professional organizations: Old Dominion Medical Association, National Medical Association, Medical and Chirurgical Society of Richmond, and the Richmond Hospital Association. He founded two small banking institutions: the Nickel Savings Bank and the Star National Bank. He also established a memorial society called the Memorial Burial Ground Association, and an insurance plan known as the People’s Relief Association of Virginia, Church Hill. In addition to these professional and business ventures, Dr. Tancil invested in rental property in Richmond, as well as farm property outside the city. Along with John Mitchell Jr., William Washington Browne, and Maggie L. Walker, he was active in the Richmond streetcar boycotts of 1903–04 to protest the new Jim Crow laws.
Marriage and family memories
In July 1883, Dr. Tancil married another Virginian, Mary Dade Lane (1857–1927), daughter of Emilia Lane. Richard and Mary likely met in Alexandria where she was a schoolteacher living with her mother and stepfather, Richard Wilson. Mary’s birth father is unknown but was possibly a slave owner. According to family oral history, she had a blood tie to Nancy Astor, so a connection to one of the Langhorne slaveholding families is a possibility currently under investigation. Mary succumbed to breast cancer in 1927 and is buried at East End. One of the tragedies of Dr. Tancil’s life was that he was unable to save his beloved wife from the ravages of what was then an inevitably deadly disease. Mary had a younger sister named Louvenia Lane (b. ca. 1859). Known as “Lou,” she married James Ottoway Holmes (b. 1857), a noted Washington hotelier. Holmes also ran an excursion boat out of Georgetown—the Mary Washington—entertaining day-trippers with popular bands while navigating the Potomac.
Richard and Mary Tancil were remembered as deeply loving and protective parents to their three children. Mary returned temporarily to Alexandria in June 1884 to give birth to her first child, Pearle Eulalia Tancil. Pearle was a schoolteacher in Richmond when she met and married Rev. Robert Jackson Langston, then a theology student at Virginia Union. Pearle led an active life as the wife of a pastor. She was remembered by her children and grandchildren as a kind, generous woman, often preparing dinner for her husband and family, then leaving them in the dining room to eat while she sat in the kitchen with poor neighborhood boys in need of a meal, affectionately called “Pearle’s Boys.” After a long happy marriage, Pearle lost her husband to leukemia in 1942. She died in Philadelphia in 1955.
Richard and Mary were blessed with a son in August 1887 and named him Richard F. Tancil Jr. Known to the family as “Lunky Richard,” he inherited his father’s sense of humor and was a happily received guest by his nieces and nephews because of his entertaining stories. Dr. Tancil sent his son to Canada to wait out WWI, believing the war was unjust and his son’s death on a battlefield would be a meaningless loss. R. F. Tancil Jr. lived in New York City with his wife, Belle Robinson, then moved to Philadelphia after a divorce, later dying in Norristown, Pennsylvania, in 1963.
Richard and Mary’s youngest child was Mary L. Tancil (1892–1911). Mary suffered from tuberculosis and was sent for a time to a sanitarium in Asheville, North Carolina, in the hope that mountain air would improve her health. She continued to fail and was brought home to Richmond, where she died in March 1911 at age 18. Her father was deeply affected that he could not save his precious child. Mary is buried at East End next to her parents.
Dr. Tancil’s grandchildren loved to share memories of him. A favorite tale was about his repeated steamboat trips down the James River from Richmond to Claremont, Virginia. His eldest child, Pearle, lived there for several years while her husband was president of Smallwood–Corey Institute. Dr. Tancil would appear on the dock, to the delight of his grandchildren, dressed in his usual three-piece suit with a gold watch chain dangling from his impressive girth. They knew he would always have a gift for each of them—a doll or other new toy. Behind Dr. Tancil would be a parade of workers pushing carts of full of groceries and produce just in case his daughter and grandbabies were in need. Pearle’s husband, R. J. Langston, was an accomplished minister and a founder of a boarding school for young men, a former instructor at Tuskegee, and then president of Smallwood–Corey. But Dr. Tancil semi-humorously felt his precious daughter had married a “country preacher” so wanted to guarantee the spoiled life of her youth would continue uninterrupted.
One of Dr. Tancil’s granddaughters remembered many happy visits in the 1920s to her grandparents’ Church Hill home at 601 North 30th Street. She spoke often of the luxury she believed they enjoyed in a house with a maid, beautiful furnishings, and wall-to-wall carpeting. Dr. Tancil was known in the community as a good-humored man and for being lenient with his tenants’ rent if he knew they were facing hard times. His medical office was on the ground floor of his house, and patients would walk by and chat as Grandpa Tancil and his granddaughter sat on the porch after business hours. One anecdote often shared with a smile was the time a man walked by to say “I need to come to see you soon, Doc Tancil.” The laughing reply was: “There’s nothing wrong with you except you’re ugly and I can’t cure ugly!”
Death and burial
Richard F. Tancil Sr. died from renal failure in Richmond in March 1928, less than six months after the death of his wife. He was buried next to her and their daughter Mary at East End. His headstone was carved with the poignant epitaph “Well Done.” A simple description of an exceedingly useful, and inspiring life.
© 2018 Susan Mitchell, great-granddaughter-in-law of Dr. Richard F. and Mary Dade (Lane) Tancil
Richard Fillmore Tancil