A Poet on Pierce Street

Published:April 26, 2019 by Brendan Wolfe

Anne Spencer (courtesy of Shaun Hester)

TRANSCRIPTION

It’s a feast for the eyes, this house, and a wonderful introduction to Anne Spencer, an African American poet of the Harlem Renaissance. It also contains a few surprises.

To see what I mean, first you need to travel south, near the North Carolina border.

That’s where Annie Bannister was born on February 6, 1882. She was the daughter of Joel Bannister, a formerly enslaved man. Her mother was Sarah Scales, who was born after the war, in 1866—

Brendan Wolfe: When we show people around the site at Encyclopedia Virginia, we like to point out our virtual tour of Anne Spencer’s house. You don’t have to physically go to Lynchburg. You can just click on the tour and walk around this amazing, brightly colored space, which is packed with early twentieth century art.

In a tiny little town called Critz—

Very near another house that still exists. A plantation manor called Rock Spring.

It was built in 1843 by the merchant Hardin Reynolds. He married that year, and the couple had sixteen children.

Eight survived to adulthood. Four of those were sons, and one of those sons was none other than R. J. Reynolds.

R. J. founded his own tobacco company in nearby Winston-Salem, and you could say that it did pretty well over the years.

Which brings us back to young Annie Bannister—

Who later became Anne Spencer.

If you tour that house of hers in Lynchburg, at 1313 Pierce Street, you might find yourself upstairs and in the guest bedroom. That’s where you’ll find hanging from the wall, in a beautifully polished wood frame, a portrait of the tobacco baron himself, R. J. Reynolds.

That picture on the wall, that powerful white man looking out over the bed—

This is the story of Virginia.

*

I’m Brendan Wolfe, editor of Encyclopedia Virginia at Virginia Humanities. On this episode of NOT EVEN PAST, we consider the life of Anne Spencer. In an earlier episode we met Bethany Veney, an enslaved woman who feared what she called “the unbridled lust of the slave owner.” She feared it so much, in fact, that when her own daughter was born she thought it might have been better if they both had died.

The Spencer family might have understood that sentiment. They have long believed that Anne’s mother Sarah was the daughter of either R. J. Reynolds or his older brother A. D. But rather than run from that fact—

Or from the violence and humiliation implicit in that possibility—

Anne Spencer claimed it. She put it on her wall—and in her guest bedroom to boot. That way all her visitors could see it too.

This tells you something about this remarkable woman.

Soon after young Annie was born, the family moved to Martinsville, where her father opened a saloon. Her parents split up, and she and her mother relocated to West Virginia. Sarah couldn’t properly care for her daughter, however, and placed her in foster care.

When she was just eleven years old, Annie was sent to Lynchburg and enrolled in the Lynchburg Baptist Seminary, which had opened just three years before.

One of its founders, John M. Armistead, was himself the son of slaves. He also was one of the great Baptist orators of his day

When Annie Bannister enrolled, in 1893, she could barely read and write. Six years later, she graduated as her class’s valedictorian.

*

While in school, Annie met Edward Spencer, a fellow student who went on to become Lynchburg’s first African American postman. The two married and had three children.

From 1910 until 1912, Anne Spencer taught at her alma mater. And that’s where she crossed paths with a man who hailed from the present-day Congo Basin region of Central Africa. He belonged to the Mbuti group of what people still sometimes call pygmies.

His name was Ota Benga.

He was about the same age as Spencer and had lived a traditional life in the Congo when territorial police raided his village, killing his wife and two children. He was sold into slavery but was eventually purchased by an American missionary for a pound of salt and a bolt of cloth.

He was put on display at the St. Louis World’s Fair and then at the Bronx Zoo.

He lived in the monkey enclosure but was allowed to roam the park freely during the day. He used a bow and arrow to shoot squirrels.

Crowds of people came to gawk at him, while others protested the indignity of his condition. An elderly French woman even wrote the zoo with an offer to purchase him.

Finally, the backlash forced the exhibit to close, and Benga lived in an orphanage on Long Island for three years. Finally, in 1910, he moved to Lynchburg to attend the seminary. That’s when he met Anne Spencer.

Ota Benga taught Anne’s son Chauncey to hunt. And he spent time with her in the elaborate garden she had cultivated behind her house.

In the end, though, it was all too much for Ota Benga. The death of his wife and children. The enslavement and living, literally, as an animal. The culture shock of Lynchburg.

He killed himself in 1916.

*

Eight years later, in 1924, Anne Spencer became the librarian of Lynchburg’s black high school, Dunbar. The school library there was the only library in the city open to black patrons, so in effect she was the city’s chief African American librarian.

She helped found Lynchburg’s chapter of the NAACP and led a campaign to hire African American teachers.

She also spent much of her time at home, writing.

In 1919 one of the early leaders of the NAACP, James Weldon Johnson, visited Lynchburg on business. Johnson had served as a diplomat in the Roosevelt administration, published an anonymous autobiography, and, under his own name, published a book of poems. He was an important figure of the Harlem Renaissance, or what was known at the time as the New Negro Movement.

Upon meeting Anne Spencer in Lynchburg he was quickly impressed by her poetry. She was prolific—

Jotting poems down on paper bags, the backs of envelopes, whatever was handy—

But not sure about publishing. Even Johnson admitted that her verses were “perhaps too unconventional.”

He referred her and them to H. L. Mencken, the Baltimore journalist, literary savant, and publishing insider.

But Spencer rejected his attempts at criticism and declined his help because, she said, he was not a poet.

In this way, I think, we get a hint at what Anne Spencer was like:

A bit eccentric

An artist but a fiercely independent one

Hardly a fame seeker

And perhaps even a bit of a homebody.

While many Harlem Renaissance types were quite naturally preoccupied by race, Spencer was not. Johnson once said that “practically none of her poetry has been motivated by race,” while Spencer herself put it this way:

“I write about some of the things I love. But have no civilized articulation for the things I hate.”

*

What Anne Spencer loved was the natural world. It was something she shared with Ota Benga. She loved her home, at 1313 Pierce Street in Lynchburg. And, in particular, she loved her garden.

She once wrote a tribute to Elizabeth Barrett Browning in which she contrasted the prim precision of the English garden with the riotous beauty of the Blue Ridge.

It meant everything to her. Spencer’s garden became a central part not only of her life but even her fame. IT hosted a cottage she called Edankraal, which combined her and her husband’s names with sacred spaces, such as Eden and the African kraal.

As early as the 1920s she turned that cottage into an artist’s salon, hosting the likes of W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, and Gwendolyn Brooks.

Part of this was the fact that African American travelers were not welcome in most hotels for at least the first half of the century. This is why the now-famous Green Book was published. The 1956 Green Book for Lynchburg lists a hotel, the YWCA, and four so-called tourist homes—what I imagine to be a bit like bed and breakfasts.

Edankraal became a tourist home for the black elite, a place where they could talk politics and literature and walk in Anne Spencer’s gorgeous garden.

Now of course you can go to Encyclopedia Virginia and take the virtual tour of this space. You can look at that picture of R. J. Reynolds hanging on the wall. And you can walk the garden. You can think about the tobacco empire, the Mbuti man, and the Harlem poets who all crossed paths here.

But it’s really something to go there in person, as we did recently.

We went to Anne Spencer’s house in Lynchburg and there met her granddaughter, who runs the Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum.

Shaun Hester: And we are sitting in the sunroom. And I’m sitting in my grandmother’s chair, which I don’t very often to sit in. Yea.

BW: Shaun Hester is dedicated to telling the story of Anne Spencer but she didn’t always feel comfortable disclosing her relation to the poet. 

SH: When I first started doing the tours here, I wouldn’t tell people that I was Anne Spencer’s granddaughter. I would do the tours as if I was a third person. 

BW: What was your thinking behind that?

SH: I didn’t really think about it. I just thought that that was the way that I should do it. Sometimes I would slip up on those tours in the beginning when I wouldn’t tell them who I was. And I would make a mistake and I would try to be this third person. And then I would say, “my grandmother” or “my grandfather,” and they would look at me and then they would say, “you didn’t tell us. You didn’t tell us.” And then I realized that I really was denying them of an experience and I really started sharing stories about what I remember here being as their grandchild and these stories that I was sharing with them as this third person and not saying that this story was passed to me by my grandmother or passed to me from my grandfather. I think it really started legitimizing these stories. So I’ve learned now that it’s a really important thing to say that I am Anne Spencer’s granddaughter.

BW: Her familial connection became important as she drew on her interior design background to prepare her grandparents’ house for reinterpretation. 

SH: So I thought well I’m gonna take on this project and this is the best project of an interior designer ever where I can come in and nobody can tell me what I can do and what I can’t do because I’m also her granddaughter.

BW: Right.

SH: But I felt like I needed some direction or somebody to tell me, “it’s ok what you want to do here.” So I call up Travis McDonald from Poplar Forest who’s the architectural historian there at Poplar Forest. So Travis comes over, comes here to the museum and meets with me and I explain to him what I want to do–and how I want to keep as much original as I can. And so we had a discussion about it. So he says, “you know what Shaun, what I would do, I would think about what would your grandparents do if they were still living. What would they do to that wall? What would they do to that chair? How would they continue on caring for their home?” And so that’s been my attitude. And so I just take one room at a time and I shake out the rugs and I polish the furniture and I wax the floors and I clean the windows and I find slipcovers up in the attic and I try to figure out what does that go on and where does that chair go. Oh that goes with that. And I start what I consider staging the museum.

BW: Eventually she got the museum up to snuff and started giving tours. She started facing some pushback that she didn’t expect.

SH: When I first started doing the tours, I saw at the bottom of those steps and I thought, “what am I going to tell these people?” I don’t know what to tell them. And so I start reading what’s written. That’s how I start and then I start incorporating these oral histories. I thought for every time I do a tour, I’m going to add something else. That’s how I built up my tours. I would say, “I remember my father saying that Paul Robeson sang here and how the house rumbled.” Those stories. They would say to me, “well, how do you know that? How do you know that that’s true?” At first it bothered me.

BW: What bothered you about it?

SH: It bothered me that they didn’t accept the oral histories of an African American as the truth. And so once I got over being angry and I was able to really think about it, then I realized well African American stories are not in our history books. And this oral history is a part of African American culture. This is how my stories and our stories and their stories have been passed down through generation, through generation, through generation. If those stories had not been passed down then that’s how our history is not known. My father used to make us sit there. We would be like oh my God. I would say, “God, if I have to hear this story one more time, I’m gonna die, Dad. Please.”

BW: One of the things that when Miranda and I were talking about oral history, one of the things that I’ve found in some of the research that I’ve done even into family history is that I think a lot of people are skeptical of oral history in general and maybe African American history in particular. But I’ve actually been surprised that where you are able to verify a lot of it’s really true. Things happen and people tell stories about it and it gets passed down and some of it’s really amazing and crazy and you can’t believe it but so is a lot of stuff you read in books. Just the fact that it’s not written down, people are culturally programmed to be skeptical of it.

SH: The biggest compliment I get at the end of the tour is thank you for sharing your stories. It’s not about the stories they can read online or in a history book about Langston Hughes, james weldon johnson, paul Robeson or all the wonderful people who’ve come here. It’s the stories that have been passed down to me that are so interesting to the visitors.

BW: Tell us about your book. How did it start? How long have you been working on it?

SH: Feels like forever. It culminates from my work here. I would give these tours and I would tell these stories and they would say I hope you’re writing this down. I would hear it in the middle of the night. I was mowing the lawn and taking down wallpaper, and painting and all kinds of stuff around here that needed to be done and thinking about this book in my head for three years.

One of the things I’m doing in my book is I’m taking some of these oral histories that have been passed down to me and looking for written reference to it. If you’re skeptical I’m gonna dig up some more. I’m gonna tell you more. I’m reading their books to see if there’s some reference of why they came to Lynchburg—where were they going, coming from, what did they do here? I also want to show people that African American oral histories are important and that they need to be considered legitimate.

BW: So, can you tell us about your grandmother? What was she like? What was it like to know here? Who was she in the world? We know what she’s accomplished. We know her design sense was like. But what was she like as a person? What are your memories of her being around?

SH: This picture here is really how I remember my grandmother. Upstairs above this room was her dressing room. And she had this dish with all these different colored ribbons in it. She would brush her hair for an hour. And you would just sit and talk with her. She was so patient. Nothing moved her fast. She went at her own pace.  It was really nice to slow down because my father was military. We were all soldiers. She moved gracefully. She would get these ribbons as we were talking. She would tie them at the top and then she would tie them at the bottom. But none of them matched. She didn’t even try to match what she had on like I was trying to do as a little girl. I loved the way she mixed her patterns even with her clothing. It’s the same as her home. She could wear plaid pants with a flower shirt. I would try to do it and my brothers would make fun of me. I couldn’t pull it off the same way.

BW: In the eighth grade Shaun Hester learned that her grandmother was known and admired by many around the world as a poet.

SH: My English teacher stops me in the hall and she says to me Shaun, I’d like you to read one of your grandmother’s poems. I’m looking around like are you talking to me? My grandmother? I was like ok and I go home and I’m like dad is granny a poet? Ms. Smith asked me to read a poem at eighth grade graduation. And he said yea. And he pulls out all these books: James Weldon Johnson’s books and Countee Cullen’s books and all these books that she’s published in. I’m in the eighth grade remember. Some of my grandmother’s poems are very long and hard to interpret especially for an eighth-grader, even for an adult. My selection decision comes down to choosing the shortest poem that I can find. It is her poem Dunbar, which I recited at my eighth-grade graduation.

Dunbar

Ah, how poets sing and die!
Make one song and Heaven takes it;
Have one heart and Beauty breaks it;
Chatterton, Shelley, Keats and I—
Ah, how poets sing and die!

That’s the first time that the light turns on and it’s just a year later that she passes away and my family is now living in Lynchburg, Virginia. I’m going into the tenth grade and I enroll in school here. It’s really this point in my life that I’m really starting to understand and know my grandparents through their spirit being here. And I do feel like they’re here. There’s not a time that pass through that door and I don’t say hello or goodbye. I know it may sound odd to people but I feel like they’re here.

BW: To read more about Anne Spencer and go on a virtual tour of her Lynchburg house, go to EncyclopediaVirginia.org.

Music in this episode is by Blue Dot Sessions.
This podcast was produced by Miranda Bennett.