Anne Spencer

As a poet, teacher, and activist, Anne Spencer was an important figure in the civil rights movement. Her marker resides on 1313 Pierce Street in Lynchburg, Virginia, at the house where she lived with her husband, Edward Alexander from 1903 until her death in 1975. It was erected by the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission in 1978. 

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The marker reads, “This was the home of Edward Alexander and Anne Bannister Spencer from 1903 until her death on July 25, 1975. Born on February 6, 1882, in Henry County, Va. Anne Spencer was to receive national and international recognition as a poet. Published extensively between 1920 and 1935, she belonged to the Harlem Renaissance school of writers”. This marker focuses on her accomplishments as a poet but fails to recognize her role in the civil rights movement.

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Anne Spencer in Her Garden

Anne Bethel Bannister was born in Henry County, Virginia, to Joel Cephus Bannister and Sarah Louise Scales. After their marriage, both her parents worked on a plantation. Both children to former slaves, her parents were part of the first generation of African Americans who grew up in the time following the abolishment of slavery. Following her parents’ separate, Anne and her mother moved to West Virginia, settling in the city of Bramwell, which was unusually accepting of African Americans at the time. There, they lived with the Dixie family, who were prominent members of the African American Community. Living there, Annie did not perform household chores or receive schooling of any kind, granting her an unusual amount of freedom for an African American girl of this time. This freedom led to her development as a poet. As an illiterate child, Annie would often seclude herself in the family outhouse with the Sears and Roebuck catalog, flipping the pages, imagining herself to be reading. 

Annie’s father, Joel, learning of Annie’s lack of enrollment in an educational institute, gave her mother an ultimatum in which she must enroll her in school or return Annie to live with him. Annie’s mother learned of the Virginia Seminary (now known as the Virginia University of Lynchburg) at a church meeting and sent Annie there in 1893, at the age of eleven. Despite being largely illiterate, Annie excelled in the school, going on to graduate as valedictorian in 1899. It was here that Annie wrote her first poem, titled “The Skeptic”, which is now lost. Having received a Normal School education at the Virginia Seminary, Annie went on to teach school in Elkhorn and Maybeury, West Virginia from 1899 until 1901. 

While at the Virginia Semunary, Annie met her future husband, a fellow student, named Charles Edward Spencer. They went on to marry on May 15th, 1901 at the Dixies’ home in Bramwell. In 1903, they moved to Lynchburge and built a home at 1313 Pierce Steet, now a museum and the site of the historical marker. It was there that they went on to raise three children together, including two daughters, Bethel and Alroy, and one son, Chauncey Spencer. Chauncey later played a prominent role during World War II, with his actions leading to the formation of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of primarily African American military pilots and airmen who fought in World War II. At this time, African American pilots were routinely refused the chance to serve in the military as pilots. 

Anne worked as a librarian at a local all-Black high school known as Paul Laurence Dunbar High School from 1923 to 1945. This library was the only one open to African Americans in the city. As the library consisted of a relatively small collection of books, Spencer began bringing books of her own to add to the library. During this time, Anne spent much of her time writing as well as serving on committees in order to improve the legal, social, and economic aspects of African Americans’ lives.

It was at this time, in 1913, Anne and her husband Edward, along with their friend Mary Rice Hayes Allen and others, opened a new chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) in Lynchburg. Additionally, Anne led a campaign to hire African American teachers to work in African American schools. In association with James Weldon Johnson, the branch became fully active with ninety-six members by July 1918. The Spencers’ home became an important site for the NAACP, operating as a salon where the Spencers welcomed numerous African American guests, travelers, and dignitaries over the years including Langston Hughes, W.E.B Du Bois, Marian Anderson, Thurgood Marshall, George Washington Carver, Martin Luther King Jr., and James Weldon Johnson. 

Anne continued writing poetry throughout this period and her career as a poet began in 1919. She hosted James Weldon Johnson, a traveling field agent for the NAACP (as well as poet, diplomat, journalist, anthropologist, teacher, lawyer, and songwriter), in her home, and it was during this visit that he discovered her poetry and helped launch her literary career. H.L. Menchen, Johnson’s editor, offered to publish her work, but she turned him down. However, Johnson encouraged and helped Anne publish her first poem, “Before the Feast at Shushan,” in the February 1920 issue of The Crisis, a journal founded by the NAACP. She was 40 years old at the time. 

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However, the majority of Spencer’s work was published during the 1920’s, during a period known as the Harlem Renaissance. Her poems focused primary on the topics of race and nature, as well as including themes of feminism. She was highly respected during this time and would go on to be widely anthologized. Most notably, her work was featured in Alain Locke’s The New Negro: An Interpretation, which connected her to the Harlem Renaissance. As well as The Book of American Negro Poetry, which was edited by James Weldon Johnson.

During her lifetime, Anne published over thirty poems. She earned herself a place in the esteemed Norton Anthology of American Poetry, in 1973, making her the second African American to be featured, and the first African American woman. Following her death in 1975, much of her work was published in Time’s Unfading Garden: Anne Spencer’s Life and Poetry. Later she was also featured in Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance. Additionally, in the latter half of the twentieth century, much of her lost work was found and published. 

Anne Spencer died at the age of 93 on July 27th, 1975. She was buried alongside her husband Edward, who died earlier in 1964, in a family plot at Forest Hills Cemetery in Lynchburg. Her home, where the historical marker is placed, is now a museum dedicated to preserving her legacy, known as the Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum. As a celebrated gardener in her lifetime, Anne’s garden served as inspiration for her poetry. Her garden house, known as Edankraal (a combination of Edward and Annes’ names and the Afrikaan word “kraal”, meaning corral), which her husband built for her as a writing studio, is where Anne did much of her writing. 

Virginia Historical Marker - Anne Spencer House | Kipp Teague | Flickr
Black Poetry Day: A Highlight on Anne Spencer - LYH – Lynchburg Tourism

Her papers, family papers, and books from her personal library are now kept at the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia. Some of Anne’s personal correspondence with James Weldon Johnson, specifically selected by her, are now a part of his memorial collection (known as the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection) at the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library at Yale University. 

Timeline

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Audience

The primary audience to which this historical marker research portfolio is directed are my instructors, Dr. George Oberle, and Ms. Alyssa Fahringer. That being said, my secondary audience may include history, women’s studies, and African American studies students and scholars. As well as fans of Anne Spencer’s work, who wish to learn more about her, her life, and the inspirations behind her work. Finally, my secondary audience includes Americans in general, as Anne Spencer was an important figure in our country’s history and in the civil rights movement. 

Statement of Significance

Anne Spencer was a significant figure in the civil rights movement, as well as a prominent poet during the Harlem Renaissance in Virginia. The Harlem Renaissance, also known as the New Negro Movement, was the period between roughly the late 1910s to the early 1930s, that is considered a golden age in African American culture, manifested through art, literature, music, and stage performance. Despite living far away in Virginia, Spencer was considered a prominent poet of this time. Her accomplishments as a poet include being the first African American women (and only the second African American overall) to be published in Norton’s Anthology of Modern Poetry, as well as her inclusion in James Weldon Johnson’s The Book of American Negro Poetry. Among her most influential works is “White Things”, which was interpreted by critics to be a comparison of the subjugation of the black race to the destruction of nature, showing how the supremacy of whiteness is only maintained through the violent destruction of colored-ness. She wrote this poem in response to a lynching she had read about at the time. During her lifetime, she was activist for civil rights equality and educational opportunities. She helped open a new chapter of the NAACP (the National Association for Advancement of Colored People) in Lynchburg, welcoming African American guests and dignitaries to her home, as segregation laws prevented them from staying in hotels. She ran a campaign to have African American teachers be hired to teach at African American schools. She influenced and worked with other prominent figures of the time, including James Weldon Johnson, who commended her “economy of phrase and compression of thought”. She was also mother to Chauncey Spencer, who contributed to the formation of the Tuskegee Airmen. During her time as a teacher, she tutored Ota Benga, an African Pygmy who was put on display at the Saint Louis World’s Fair and the Bronx Zoo for several years before being sent to Lynchburg. Her teachings, poetry, and activism served (and continues to serve) as inspiration to many civil rights activists, artists and writers, and countless others to this day.

Proposed Revision for Marker

“This was the home of Edward Alexander and Anne Bannister Spencer from 1903 until her death on July 25, 1975. Born on February 6, 1882, in Henry County, Va. Anne Spencer was to receive national and international recognition as a poet. Published extensively between 1920 and 1935, she belonged to the Harlem Renaissance school of writers. Initially illiterate as a child, she went on to become a teacher, a librarian, activist, and poet. This home’s garden served as inspiration for many of her poems. Much of her work was written in the garden house, known as Edankraal. As a teacher, poet, activist, and loving wife and mother during her lifetime, she served as an inspiration for many.” 

References

“Anne B. Spencer.” Virginia Changemakers. Accessed December 8, 2021. https://edu.lva.virginia.gov/changemakers/items/show/245. 

“The Anne Spencer House – 1313 Pierce Street.” Department of Historic Resources. Accessed December 8, 2021. https://vcris.dhr.virginia.gov/HistoricMarkers/. 

Brandman, Mariana. “Anne Spencer Biography.” National Women’s History Museum, 2020. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/anne-spencer. 

“Chauncey Spencer, Pilot Born.” African American Registry, November 5, 2021. https://aaregistry.org/story/airman-chauncey-spencer-born/. 

Gomez, Skyler. “Anne Spencer, Harlem Renaissance Poet.” Literary Ladies Guide, November 13, 2021. https://www.literaryladiesguide.com/author-biography/anne-spencer/. 

Greene, J. Lee, ed. Time’s Unfading Garden: Anne Spencer’s Life and Poetry. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University, 1977. 

Johnson, James Weldon, ed. Book of American Negro Poetry. New York, Ne York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 2021. 

Locke, Alain, ed. The New Negro. New York, NY: Albert and Charles Boni, 1925. 

Lynchburg Museum. “Anne Spencer Part I: Her Life.” Lynchburg Museum . Lynchburg Museum , June 16, 2016. https://www.lynchburgmuseum.org/blog/anne-spencer1. 

Salmon, Nina. “Spencer, Anne (1882–1975).” Encyclopedia Virginia, February 12, 2021. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/spencer-anne-1882-1975/. 

Spencer, Anne. “Before the Feast of Shushan.” The Crisis 19, no. 4 (February 1920). 

University of Virginia. “Papers of Anne Spencer and the Spencer Family.” University of Virginia Library. Accessed December 8, 2021. https://search.lib.virginia.edu/sources/uva_library/items/u4700310. 

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