Where the Harlem Renaissance blossomed in Virginia, with poet Anne Spencer

Anne Spencer’s place on Pierce Street is both cozy and stately, with red brown shingles, a raised seam roof and a proud gable.

Inside the front parlor, the furnishings, the wall art, the chairs all speak to a vitality frozen in place and time. Anne Spencer died in 1975, but you sense that she may have just stepped out to buy a bottle of milk.

Maya Angelou, when she entered this room, declaimed: “I feel the spirit of Anne Spencer.”

That was back in the 1980s, but the spirit still abides. In fact, it shines brighter. With a recent restoration of the garden and the passionate ministrations of a returning family member, the Anne Spencer House and Museum has become a window into a world that was rich and poignant and in­cred­ibly connected to the Harlem Renaissance but generally overlooked in a not-too-distant and segregated past.

In particular, the garden renovation — actually, two, nearly 30 years apart — has drawn wealthy, white members of a garden club to a neighborhood that was eight miles away but light years removed from their own. “They lived in one world and Anne Spencer lived in another,” said Jane White, a landscape designer who led the first renovation, in the 1980s.

Inside the home, Spencer’s granddaughter, Shaun Spencer-Hester, 53, has hung pictures of the iconic figures who passed through this house, both during the defining decade of the 1920s, and later. Spencer’s circle included James Weldon Johnson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Marian Anderson.

H.L. Mencken became a literary adviser, and his picture hangs there, too.

“There are so many stories that I know, for some people, it’s so far-fetched,” Spencer-Hester said. Even for her, when she pauses to consider it, “it’s kind of mind-boggling.”


Anne Spencer in her flower garden in 1947. (Nancy Blackwell Marion/Design Group)

Anne Spencer came to Lynchburg from West Virginia in the 1890s to attend what was then a secondary school known as the Virginia Seminary. She studied the humanities, nurtured her love of poetry and, by the time she had graduated, had been introduced to the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson — and to her future husband, a fellow student who had tutored her. Edward Spencer was part of a thriving African American community in Lynchburg at the turn of the last century (albeit in an era of Jim Crow). He and his brother acquired land and built houses. Within a couple of years of marrying, Edward built his bride the Queen Anne-style house on Pierce Street.

His wife’s entree into the Harlem Renaissance came by way of Johnson, who traveled through the South helping local activists such as Anne Spencer establish chapters of the NAACP. Johnson was many things — lawyer, educator, songwriter; as an elder statesman of the black cultural awakening of the early 20th century, he brought Anne Spencer into the fold. Her first published poem, “Before the Feast of Shushan” appeared in The Crisis magazine, published by the NAACP. Alain Locke, known as the father of the Harlem Renaissance, put her poem “Lady, Lady,” in his influential collection “The New Negro.” She was the first African American woman to be featured in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry.

As Anne Spencer’s literary fame spread, 1313 Pierce St. became its own salon for leading black intellectuals traveling through the South.

For Spencer, writing poetry became as natural, as necessary, as breathing, and she wrote most of her poems for herself. She may have penned 1,000 poems over seven decades here, but fewer than 30 were ever published. She wrote on anything at hand — ledgers, playbills, walls.

“She has a paradoxical reputation of being very well known but not known in any kind of depth for what she produced, especially beyond the Harlem Renaissance,” said Noelle Morrissette, an associate professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. For subject matter, Spencer turned to nature, women, death, the passage of time — “broad, universal themes more closely allied with the Victorians than with a modern American poet or an African American poet of the early 20th century,” she said.

The poet Matthew Arnold once declared that “it is of advantage to a poet to deal with a beautiful world.” Edward Spencer understood that and labored to give his wife the sanctuary to cultivate her art. He turned a back porch into a sun room where she could read and receive company; he acquired the rear, vacant lot so that her garden could be doubled in length. In the 1920s, he built her a writing cottage, where a stone slab floor supports a writing desk, reading chairs, a wood stove and a cot for napping.


Edward Spencer built his wife a writing cottage, which she named “Edankraal” — a blend of names and an Afrikaans word for dwelling or enclosure. (Ryan Stone/For the Washington Post)

The garden was rich with roses and cottage garden plants, it was soft and romantic, but within the framework of a linear design. To form a focal point at the end of the garden, Edward built an ornamental pond with a hedge-sheltered bench. DuBois arrived one day with a fountain for the pond in the form of a mask of an African prince.

Anne Spencer ventured beyond Pierce Street; she was the librarian in Lynchburg’s black high school for 21 years. She traveled with Edward to collect wildflowers for her garden, and, in her formidable way, chewed out the bus drivers of Lynchburg when they told her to go to the back. “She would be verbal to the driver,” said Spencer-Hester, laughing, sort of. “She would be put off the bus.”

Spencer always retreated to her home and to the writing cottage, which she named “Edankraal” — a blend of names and an Afrikaans word for dwelling.

In one pencil-written musing not discovered until 2008, she wrote: “We have a lovely home — one that money did not buy — it was born and evolved slowly out of our passionate, poverty stricken agony to own our own home, happiness.”


Anne and Edward Spencer in the 1930s in the garden they created in Lynchburg. (Anne Spencer House & Garden Museum)

For Spencer-Hester, the full scope of her grandparents’ lives has revealed itself only in recent years, long after their deaths, and in layers. After her father, Chauncey Spencer, died in 2002, “people, even myself, were afraid to come in and move things,” she said. “I just decided I was going to take it on myself.”

She was born and raised in Southern California, but her family moved to the Detroit area after the race riots of the 1960s, where her father, a town planner, worked on urban renewal. For Spencer-Hester and her displaced siblings, the dislocation was tempered by the promise of returning to the West Coast.

But with Anne Spencer’s death in 1975, the family first had to go to Lynchburg to sort out the estate. Chauncey Spencer, persuaded by business leaders that Anne Spencer’s house should be enshrined to honor its Harlem Renaissance connection, agreed, and created the museum and then stuck around to run it. So Shaun found herself at 13 friendless and acutely aware that Lynchburg was not California.

After attending college in Atlanta, where she studied design, she returned to Lynchburg and worked as a buyer for a department store. She married a bank executive and moved to Farmville, a small town midway between Lynchburg and Richmond. She lost her husband to cancer when she was 38 and remained in Farmville because their son was just 12 at the time.

Later, she moved to Washington and eventually worked in the old Design Center and lived nearby on the waterfront in Southwest. Her friends saw something unfulfilled in her. “They would say to me, Maybe you should go back to Lynchburg and do something with the museum.’ ”


Shaun Spencer-Hester volunteers full-time at the museum that honors her grandmother’s life and work. She moved to Lynchburg to care for her mother and has worked to restore the museum as well. (Ryan Stone/For the Washington Post)

The idea at first seemed crazy, but when she came back to visit her mother, she would go across the street and walk in the garden. When her mother became frail — she’s 92 in August — she came back to Lynchburg five years ago.

Immersed in the physical world of her grandparents, she began to see them in a way that was closed to her as a child. Many of Anne Spencer’s papers were given to the University of Virginia, but enough possessions and documents — photos, letters, drafts of poems — were floating around for Spencer-Hester to assemble a psychological montage of her grandparents’ lives.

Sometimes, she will go to her grandmother’s bedroom, to her dresser, and see the items that outlived Anne Spencer: her lipstick, her bottle of perfume. She picks up the brush and notices the strands of her grandmother’s hair, held by the bristles still.

She came across notes and letters to her grandmother from H.L. Mencken, and a letter from Langston Hughes urging her to send a photo of herself to Ebony magazine, for a piece on black poetry. He once sent Anne Spencer a birthday telegram, short, sweet and metrical. “Seven candles for your birthday cake.”

Anne Spencer, in turn, wanted to share the liberating power of literature. She took many of her own books to the woefully understocked library at the high school. As a young woman, she read the Bible to her mother, who was born on a plantation and was illiterate.

When Shaun Spencer-Hester’s mother, also named Anne Spencer, was a young bride during World War II and Chauncey, then an aviator, was stationed at Fort Meade, she came to stay with her mother-in-law.

When the younger Anne would retire at night, she would find a book on the bedside table, marked with a passage to read — “something she felt I should be up on,” she remembers.


The Spencer family has worked with the Hillside Garden Club to restore and maintain the poet Anne Spencer’s garden. (Ryan Stone/For the Washington Post)

More than 30 years ago, Chauncey Spencer recognized that the garden his parents had created was being lost to the natural chaos of a neglected landscape. This is when Jane White entered the picture.

Even by the 1980s, black and white societies of Lynchburg existed more or less in two parallel universes. White, whose forebears include the first mayor of Lynchburg, said until Chauncey Spencer called, she had never been in the garden of an African American resident.

She rallied her fellow members of the Hillside Garden Club to renovate the place, and they dug plants from their own gardens to furnish it. Most of the members lived in Lynchburg’s old, ritzy Rivermont neighborhood, a place where roots and lineage run deep. “Things are much more open now,” she said, “but at that point it was a very big deal for these ladies to come to the other side of town,” she said.

White and her Hillside friends undertook a second restoration of the garden in 2008, but with a greater historical accuracy and sophistication, and with the help of outside experts along with funding from the Garden Club of Virginia. Club members keep the garden maintained today, coordinated by Susan Wright.

(The museum was established as a nonprofit organization and relies on gifts and grants to survive. The garden is open daily but visitors to the house and cottage must make an appointment.)

Wright too had not heard of Anne Spencer. “When I was in school, everything was pretty much segregated, so I didn’t know about any of this. A shame,” said Wright, who is in her 60s.

The works have raised awareness of Anne Spencer and her poetry, and of her place in the Harlem Renaissance. “It’s a wonderful thing,” White said. When she is in the garden, “certain lines of her poetry ring a bell with me.” In April, when the bulbs are up and the dogwoods are blooming, she thinks of one of Anne Spencer’s poems celebrating a Virginia garden. It is a place, she wrote, of “canopied reaches of dogwood and hazel” and where the mountain streams “drain blue hills to lowlands scented with pines.”

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden."
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