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Generations of family and friends give thanks to South L.A. woman known for her generosity

Ola Tanner’s home has been a place for relatives and non-relatives to get back on their feet after a tough stretch. On Thursday, her house will host four generations of her extended family. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Ola Pearl Tanner grabbed a Tupperware container filled with chopped red, green and yellow bell peppers and tossed them in the pot of turkey necks.

Since 6 a.m. Wednesday, Tanner had cooked turkey, prime rib, green beans and turkey wings.

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The turkey necks, greens, seafood dressing and desserts — sweet potato pies, a chocolate pie, a chocolate cake, a devil's food cake and banana pudding — were next on her list.

Marshell Mitchell, one of Tanner's granddaughters, entered the kitchen when the seafood dressing — made with shrimp, oysters, crab, chicken sausage and more — was mentioned.

"I heard you say seafood dressing," Mitchell said. "I'm going to have to take a plate with me to work."

The scene at Tanner’s modest South Los Angeles house — family coming together for food, traditions and camaraderie — was repeated across Southern California on Thursday. The painstaking preparation of a sacred Thanksgiving menu. The family filling the house and crowding the kitchen. Catching up on the year that was.

Tanner is the center of her family — and not just on Thanksgiving Day. She's the person her extended family turns to for help: for advice, a shoulder to cry on and a place to live.

Mitchell is one of the relatives — four grandchildren, a daughter and a son-in-law — staying at Tanner's house these days while they look for a permanent home.

"She's always been like that," said Tanner's nephew, Stanley Richard. "Ever since I've known her, people have been staying with her. She doesn't turn people away."

Tanner's children would bring friends going through hard times to her house for a meal and a place to sleep — a room, the couch, whatever was available.

"If you're down on your luck, you can come by Sister Tanner's house," Richard said.

Ola Tanner hugs her great granddaughter, Alani Hayes, 11, in the kitchen of her Willowbrook home.
Ola Tanner hugs her great granddaughter, Alani Hayes, 11, in the kitchen of her Willowbrook home. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

For Tanner, 79, this is just the way she was raised.

She moved to California from Hazlehurst, Miss., in 1961, part of a major migration of African Americans to Southern California at that time.

Tanner says her parents "raised my siblings to be kind to people."

She has lived in Willowbrook since 1964 and worked for 30 years in local schools, first as a cook assistant, then a teacher's assistant and finally a teacher.

She lived on the other side of the alley — before the home she now owns was even built.

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"I watched them bring it in on trucks," she said. She told her late husband, Harold Tanner Jr., "I want one of those houses so bad" for them and their six kids.

She eventually got her wish, and the home is now the epicenter of her much-grown family.

From those six children, she now has more than 30 grandchildren and nearly 50 great grandchildren.

For Thanksgiving, four generations of the Tanner family pile into the small house. Others could not make it but made a point of reaching out.

"What up, Gran!" Ashton Tanner said Wednesday on the cellphone's speaker. Ashton, 29, is Tanner's great nephew who works for the Durham Police Department in North Carolina as an officer.

He was on his way to New York but had to wish her the best.

"I owe her everything," said Ashton, who stayed with Tanner after graduating from Kent State University in 2012 until he joined the Army in 2014.

He said Tanner offered important support and compassion when he needed it.

"Most people don't even want to shake someone's hand, let alone give them a place to stay," Ashton said. "Home is not a place. Home, for me, is the people you're with."

Before ending the call, Ashton told Tanner how much he loved her and would see her soon.

Richard, another one of Ola Tanner's nephews, is the pastor of the family's church, Beacon Light Baptist Church, on Avalon Boulevard. He attended church regularly as a teenager before he "went down the wrong pathway," Richard said.

"I started selling drugs, hanging out, doing stuff contrary" to what the church taught, Richard said. He didn't attend church often after graduating high school, but his aunt was his own beacon guiding him home.

I knew I had somewhere to come. My auntie was there, with open arms.


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She "always did encourage me, not judge me, but encourage me," Richard said. After he was wounded in a drive-by shooting, Tanner was there to take him in.

"I knew I had somewhere to come. My auntie was there, with open arms," Richard said.

Richard became a pastor in July 1988 and served at Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church in Compton until 2005, when he became pastor at Beacon.

Tanner said it's "surreal" to see her nephew "build this church up with young people. He's so invested in this church," where she is the president of the usher board.

Richard's investment is shown in the newly installed 60-inch television screens in the church.

"If you don't have your Bible, look at the screen," Richard said during one Sunday service. "I couldn't wait to say that."

On Thursday afternoon relatives picked their spot on the couch or grabbed a chair to watch the Cowboys play the Chargers or converse until dinner was served.

The grandchildren and great grandchildren were assigned to fill drinks with sodas and juice, and to arrange the cookie plate. "Make it look nice," Tanner said.

With the last dish on the table, and Tanner having changed into a red and black outfit, she directed the crowd to head to the dinner table.

"Move all around," she said.

Twitter: @MikeLive06

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