ANNE BETHEL SPENCER
Anne Spencer was a poet, a civil rights activist, a teacher, librarian, wife and mother, and a gardener.
More than thirty of her poems were published in her lifetime, making her an important figure of the black literary and cultural movement of the 1920s—the Harlem Renaissance—and only the second African American poet to be included in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (1973).
Noted for verse preoccupied with biblical and mythological themes, as well as those of her garden and nature, Spencer shared intellectual respect and repartee with such notables as James Weldon Johnson, who first discovered her poetic talents in 1919, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, Countee Cullen, Sterling A. Brown, Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Thurgood Marshall, Zora Neal Hurston, Mary McLeod Bethune, Adam Clayton Powell, Claude McKay, George Washington Carver, H.L. Mencken, Amaza Lee Meredith, Gwendolyn Brooks, and the Rev. Martin Luther King.
In addition to her writing, Spencer helped to found the Lynchburg Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She was also the librarian at the all-black Dunbar High School, a position she held for 20 years. Here she supplemented the original three books by bringing others from her own collection at home, as well as those provided by her employer, the all-white Jones Memorial Library. She spent much of her time writing and serving on local committees to improve the legal, social, and economic aspects of African Americans’ lives.
Amidst the troubled, segregated times in which she lived, Anne Spencer sought refuge in her garden and in the cottage, Edankraal, which her husband Edward built for her in the garden behind their home. The name Edankraal combines Edward and Anne and kraal, the Afrikaans word for enclosure or corral. Here she could lose herself in her flowers and creativity, and work into the wee hours of the morning.
The results of Spencer’s contemplative time in her garden and the cottage garnered her literary success as well as regard from the intellectual community of the 1920s. The Spencer home on Pierce Street became a salon for many intellectuals who visited regularly, and for African American travelers, who found hospitality at the Spencer home when laws of segregation barred them from hotels.
Anne Spencer was born Annie Bethel Scales Bannister to Joel Cephus Bannister and Sarah Louise Scales on February 6, 1882, on a farm in Henry County, Virginia. Both parents were of mixed lineage. Her father, born a slave in Henry County in 1862, was of black, white, and Seminole Indian ancestry. Her mother was born in 1866 on the Reynolds Plantation in Critz, Virginia in neighboring Patrick County. According to Spencer's biographer J. Lee Greene, Sarah Louise Scales was an illegitimate child: her mother was a former slave and her father a wealthy Virginia aristocrat, “well known in American aristocracy.”
Soon after Spencer was born, the family moved to Martinsville, where her father opened a saloon. Within a few years, the parents separated, and her mother took Annie to Bramwell, West Virginia, where she eventually placed Annie in the foster care of William Dixie and his wife, a prominent black couple. Then, in 1893, seeking formal education for her daughter, Scales enrolled the eleven-year-old Annie in the Virginia Theological Seminary and College (now Virginia University of Lynchburg).
Although Annie left Bramwell barely literate, when she graduated six years later in 1899, she delivered the valedictory address. While in school, Annie had met Edward Alexander Spencer of Lynchburg, a fellow student, who tutored her in math and sciences while she helped him with languages. Edward would later become Lynchburg's first parcel postman, which he combined with his other entrepreneurial talents in construction and business. Anne and Edward married in 1901 and two years later moved into the Queen Anne style home Edward had designed and built for them at 1313 Pierce Street.
The couple had three children*: Bethel Calloway, Alroy Sarah, and a son, Chauncey Edward. Later there were ten grandchildren, and the Pierce Street home was expanded and enhanced to receive and accommodate their frequent visits.
Chauncey Spencer was an important figure in his own right as a pioneer aviator, a career proudly encouraged by Anne and Edward Spencer. His flight suit and his story are part of the Black Wings Exhibit in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D. C. and the Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame. His retirement home at 1307 Pierce Street, also a Virginia Historic Landmark, is across the street from his childhood home. Click here for more information.
Anne Spencer died of cancer at age 93 on July 27, 1975 and is buried alongside her husband Edward, who died in 1964, in the family plot at Forest Hills Cemetery in Lynchburg.
The house and garden were designated a Virginia Historic Landmark in 1976, and also a Friends of the Library USA Literary Landmark, and a Historic Landmark by the Association for the Study for Afro-American Life and History. The Spencer House and Garden is included on the National Register of Historic Places.
Anne Spencer's papers are archived in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia. Papers, photographs, and documentation concerning the restoration of the Spencer garden are in the possession of the Southern Memorial Association at the Old City Cemetery, Lynchburg, Virginia.
*Anne and Edward Spencer had three children, ten grandchildren, and fourteen great grandchildren:
1) Bethel Calloway (“Teen”) Spencer married Robert (Bob) Stevenson
1) Ann Bethel (“Billie”) Stevenson
2) Barbara Ann (“Bobbie”) Stevenson
2) Alroy Sarah Spencer married first Rawley W. Long, and second, Judge Francis Rivers
3) Chauncey Edward Spencer married Anna Mae Howard
1) Edward Alexander Spencer
2) Carol Ann Spencer
3) Michael Stephen Spencer
4) LuJuan Stephanie Spencer
5) Chauncey Edward Spencer
6) Joel Cephus Bannister Spencer
7) Shaun Suz'an Spencer
8) Kyle O'Shaunnesy Marietta Spencer
Time’s Unfading Garden
Anne Spencer’s Life and Poetry
by J. Lee Greene
Louisiana State University Press, 1977
Anne Spencer: “Ah, how poets sing and die!”
A collection of her poetry with commentary
by Nina V. Salmon
Warwick House Publishing, 2001
Half My World
The Garden of Anne Spencer
A History and Guide
by Rebecca T. Frischkorn and Reuben M. Rainey
Warwick House Publishing, 2003
Lessons Learned from a Poet's Garden
by Jane Baber White
Blackwell Press, 2011
Anne Spencer Revisited
A Companion to the Film by Keith Lee
Edited by Beth Packert
Photography by Susan Saandholland
Blackwell Press, 2008
BOOKS in which ANNE SPENCER is featured or receives significant recognition
Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry 1973; ...of Modern American Poetry;
...of Literature by Women (2000)
Anne Spencer was the first Virginian and first woman to be included.
Who is Chauncey Spencer?
by Chauncey E. Spencer
Broadside Press, 1975
Lynchburg, An Architectural History
by S. Allen Chambers, Jr.
photography by Richard Cheek
University Press of Virginia, 1981
American Garden Writing
Gleanings from Garden Lives Then and Now
Edited by Bonnie Marranca
“The Restoration of a Poet’s Garden”
by Jane Baber White
PAJ Publications, 1988
The Heirloom Garden
Selecting and Growing over 300 Old-Fashioned Ornamentals
by JoAnn Gardner
Storey Communications, Inc., 1992
Gardens and Landscapes of Virginia
Text by Rudy J. Favretti, F.A.S.L.A.
Photography by Richard Cheek
Fort Church Publishers, Inc., 1993
Emyl Jenkins’ Southern Hospitality
Photographs by Walter Smalling, Jr.
Crown Publishers, Inc., 1994
The Old-Fashioned American Garden 1865—1915
by Mae Brawley Hill
Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1995
Her Past Around Us
Interpreting Sites for Women’s History
Edited by Polly Welts Kaufman and Katherine T. Corbett
Krieger Publishing Company, 2003
Lynchburg 100: An Illustrated Guide to Lynchburg Landmarks
by S. Allen Chambers and Nancy B. Marion
Blackwell Press, 2007
Contributed by Jane B. White
Additional periodicals & publications
- Home & Garden. (Feb. 5, 2014) House Proud. The Life of a Poet Allergic to Endings by Penelope Green.
The Washington Post (July 28, 2014) Where the Harlem Renaissance blossomed in Virginia, with poet Anne Spencer by Adrian Higgins.
In Whose Garden Did the Harlem Renaissance Grow?100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: How segregation, soil and poetic talent nurtured a movement, by Henry Louise Gates. Roots.com Posted: Sept. 15 2014
- Afro-American Women Writers 1746-1933: An Anthology and Critical Guide (1989) Shockley, Ann Allen, New Haven, Connecticut: Meridian Books ISBN 0-452-00981-2
- Shadowed Dreams: Women's Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, Rutgers; 2 Rev Exp edition (October 25, 2006). ISBN 0-8135-3886-
- The Vintage Book of African American Poetry, Edited and with Introduction by Michael S. Harper & Anthony Walton.Copyright 2000. Vintage Books, Random House Ind., New York.ISBN 0-375-70300-7
- The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States. Ed. Cathy N. Davidson, Linda Wagner-Martin.New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Oxford University Press.
1313 Pierce Street • Lynchburg, Virginia 24501 • 434-845-1313 • The Garden Conservancy provides preservation assistance to the Anne Spencer garden