Christiana Babcock was born in North Kingstown, RI in 1819 or 1820 to a mixed African American-Narragansett Indian family. As a young woman she moved to Boston where she became a hairdresser, eventually running a thriving hair salon.
After a failed first marriage, in 1857 Christiana married Edward Bannister, a struggling painter. Although he too worked as a hairdresser, eventually the success of Christiana’s business allowed him to devote himself full-time to developing as an artist. While in Boston, the couple was active in the abolitionist movement, likely using the hair salon as an information center for the Underground Railroad.
After the Civil War, Edward’s artistic career took off, and the couple moved to Providence, RI. While Edward gained renown as a landscape painter, Christiana ran a hair salon downtown and devoted herself to philanthropic activities. In the late 1880s, Christiana Bannister led efforts in the Providence black community to build a home for retired black women who had no family to care for them. Many of these women were former domestic servants. As the African American community raised funds, Christiana also approached white society women to solicit their support. Elizabeth Goddard Shepard donated land and built a house for the enterprise. In 1890, the Home for Aged Colored Women (top right) opened and began admitting residents. Throughout the 1890s, Christiana remained active in the Home's operations, soliciting sizeable donations of money, food, and clothing. Edward painted this portrait (left) of Christiana and donated it to the Home for Aged Colored Women in her honor.
By 1900, the Bannisters had fallen on hard times. In 1901, Edward died suddenly. In September 1902, an elderly and mentally-ill Christiana was admitted to the Home for Aged Colored Women. Unfortunately her dementia prevented the Home from being able to care for her. After eight days, she was transferred to the State Hospital for the Insane where she died three months later. In the board minutes, the Home described Christiana’s decline and acknowledged her many contributions (bottom right).
Renamed Bannister House and still committed to its mission of caring for the elderly, the Home Christiana helped found is a nursing home in southwest Providence. Christiana’s portrait still hangs on its walls.