Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.
Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 91: Which black female poet owned a garden house that became a popular home-away-from-home down South for the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance?
Nearly a century ago, out of the bitter soil of Jim Crow segregation and the First World War, sprang one of the most creative—and socially conscious—artistic flowerings in the history of the United States. The Harlem or “New Negro” Renaissance of the 1920s was enabled by an unprecedented demographic shift. The migrants came from the part of the South known as “the Black Belt,” named both for the color of the region’s rich cotton-growing soil and for the concentration of black people there. The Black Belt was the heart of what had been slave country.
Like the more recent migration of talented entrepreneurs to Silicon Valley, those flocking to Northern cities in the interwar years were looking for unprecedented economic opportunity. But unlike the tech elite, those black working and middle-class people also were seeking an escape from the dehumanizing confines, petty insults, racial profiling, lynchings and other harsh brutalities of the Southern color line.
However, while Harlem may have been celebrated in legend and song as the world’s “black mecca,” as Alain Locke put it, the Harlem Renaissance had roots and branches extending far beyond Upper Manhattan. It was a state of mind that connected a community of artists all across the country, the descendants of both slaves and free black people. They searched for new forms of expression—for freedom itself—throughout the major industrial areas of the North, from Chicago and Detroit through Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Boston, even (or especially) in Jim Crow’s backyard, segregated Washington, D.C.
In the American South, ironically, segregation, by choking off hotels for whites only, forced black travelers to look for “tourist homes” with the aid of others similarly situated. (This history generated a memorable driving segment with migration chronicler Isabelle Wilkerson on my PBS documentary series The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, Episode 4, “Making a Way Out of No Way”). Essentially, such abodes were hotels, bed-and-breakfasts and friends-of-friends’ homes all rolled into one. You never knew who you were going to bump into in a tourist home, or what talented fellow boarders you might discover there.
On the road, shared circumstances and chance had a way of creating conditions for interconnectivity and encouragement, enriching to any artist, but especially those confined by color. Segregation-induced reading clubs, literary societies and middle-class cultural salons and arts contests sponsored by the Crisis and Opportunity magazines were at one end of the spectrum. At the other: juke joints, speakeasies and late-night integrated jazz clubs.
All were the soil in which the full range of the arts of the Harlem Renaissance—from the finest poetry and fiction and achievements in the plastic and visual arts to gut bucket blues, verbal signifying street rituals, the more refined classic blues and the emerging art form of jazz—grew. (Always remember that the renaissance was a multifaceted cultural phenomenon, ranging through all of the arts, and that jazz was one of its most remarkable legacies.)
Fertile soil literally nurtured the growth of the poetic branch of the Harlem Renaissance, tended by the movement’s leading African-American female poet, Anne Spencer. Spencer’s enchanting house and garden in Lynchburg, Va., now a landmark museum, was black America’s version of Monet’s garden in Giverny, France. Anybody who was anybody in the black arts and letters scene made a point of stopping by to “smell the roses” of her hand-crafted artistry instead of the usual foul air of Jim Crow segregated rooming houses and “hotels.” From the earth she tilled in central Virginia, and the generous hospitality she offered other black writers lodging in her salon-like home, Spencer encouraged and cultivated some of the Harlem Renaissance’s most profound and enduring poetry, much of it her own.
Meet Anne Spencer
She was born Annie Bethel Scales Bannister in Henry County, Va., on Feb. 6, 1882. Annie was only an infant when her parents moved to Martinsville, Va., where her father, Joel Cephus Bannister, a saloon owner born into slavery, could practice his trade. When her parents separated a few years later, she was on the move again, this time to Bramwell, W.Va., to join her mother, Sarah Scales, the daughter of a slave mother and mysteriously unidentified white father (“a wealthy Virginia aristocrat, ‘well known in American aristocracy’ ” is how the Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum leaves it, though I’ve seen speculation that he may have been related to the Reynolds family—as in the R.J. Reynolds family).
“Your mother was never young,” Anne’s husband, Edward A. Spencer, would one day tell the family, according to Penelope Green in the New York Times. “She went from childhood to middle age.”
In 1893, Annie returned to her native state to attend the Virginia Seminary (today, the historically black Virginia University of Lynchburg) in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. She was only 11 years old. After graduating in 1899, she taught for two years in West Virginia before marrying Edward Spencer in 1901. That year the Spencers crossed the state line for good, settling in Lynchburg, which had served briefly as home to the state government after the fall of Richmond during the Civil War. The Spencer home would put the town on the map for a far different reason.
At 1313 Pierce St., Edward Spencer, a postal worker and all-around renaissance man, built his bride a Queen Anne-style home with a bountiful garden. That place was to be her salvation during her 20-year career as a librarian and teacher at the local Dunbar High School and as the mother of three, Bethel Calloway Spencer, Alroy Sarah Spencer and Chauncey Edward Spencer (a fourth child died in infancy). The Spencers called their garden house “Edankraal,” which, as Adrian Higgins writes in the Washington Post, is “a blend of names and an Afrikaans word for dwelling or enclosure.” It became the doorway through which Anne Spencer hosted the fledgling black literary world.
Spencer had started writing poetry as a student at the Virginia Seminary, but it wasn’t until leading writer James Weldon Johnson discovered her work while staying with the Spencers on a business trip for the NAACP that she received the encouragement she needed to share her musings with the world. (Johnson was down from New York to help the Spencers and their neighbors form a local chapter of the NAACP.) Actually, Johnson had to lobby Spencer to release her poem “Before the Feast of Shushan" to him for publication in the Crisis in 1920.
Soon Spencer found herself in the vanguard of black poets in a renaissance that was just getting underway, with her work popping up in such influential outlets as Survey Graphic, Opportunity, Lyric and Palms. Even though she wrote more often about nature than about race, no anthology of the Harlem Renaissance could leave her out and still be considered worthy. And in 1973, Higgins writes, Spencer became the first African-American woman to have her work canonized in The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry.
Yet, astonishingly, while Spencer was alive, fewer than 30 of her creations appeared in print, and none after 1938. Hundreds more remained safe in her keeping. Still, what she gifted to the world, like her garden, flowered. As Barbara McCaskill writes in The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature, “Spencer flaunted tradition as much as she acknowledged it, laying claim to a modern poet’s signature with sinister rhythms, slanted rhymes, blunt rejection of religious dogma, and enigmatic symbolism.”
The dynamic connection between Spencer’s house and garden and her work extended to the Harlem Renaissance itself. Many of the movement’s leading writers passed through Edankraal at one time or another. They stopped for the company, of course, but also because none of the local white hotels would rent them rooms, Dora Jean Ashe writes in her entry on Spencer in the African American National Biography. Ashe says that Spencer’s son, Chauncey, a pioneering black aviator pivotal to the formation of the Tuskegee Airmen, recalled such houseguests to 1313 Pierce St. as Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, George Washington Carver and Thurgood Marshall.
Spencer’s papers, more than 4,000 items, are housed at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and, according to the university library’s website, include correspondence from such Harlem Renaissance luminaries and other leading lights as “Sterling A. Brown, Countee Cullen, Victor Daly, Arthur P. Davis, W.E.B. [D]u Bois, Helen G. Edmonds, Murrell Edmunds, Ben Fuson, J. Lee Greene, Langston Hughes, Altona Trent Johns, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Grace Johnson, James Weldon Johnson, Charles S. Johnson, Alain LeRoy Locke, Harry Meacham, H.L. Mencken (copy), Amaza Meredith, Clarence Muse, Francis Coleman Rosenberger, Frank Silvera, Idella Purnell [Stone], Howard Thurman, and Carl Van Vechten, concerning her poetry and their own work.”
“Once they met her, she was the drawing point, the nucleus,” J. Lee Greene, author of the 1977 Spencer biography Time’s Unfading Garden: Anne Spencer’s Life and Poetry, told Green of the New York Times. “Even after her death, people were drawn to that house.”
In her writing, Anne Spencer was subtle when it came to protesting Jim Crow. A crucial exception to that was the references she made to lynching in her 1923 poem “White Things.” Through her poem, the destructive impulses of white men were supplanted, as it were, by the creative impulses of a black female poet of the South drilling in on the most violent scandal of the age. Check it out:
Most things are colorful things—the sky, earth, and sea.
Black men are most men; but the white are free!
White things are rare things; so rare, so rare
They stole from out a silvered world—somewhere.
Finding earth-plains fair plains, save greenly grassed,
They strewed white feathers of cowardice, as they passed;
The golden stars with lances fine
The hills all red and darkened pine,
They blanched with their wand of power;
And turned the blood in a ruby rose
To a poor white poppy-flower.
They pyred a race of black, black men,
And burned them to ashes white; then,
Laughing, a young one claimed a skull,
For the skull of a black is white, not dull,
But a glistening awful thing;
Made, it seems, for this ghoul to swing
In the face of God with all his might,
And swear by the hell that sired him:
‘Man-maker, make white!’
Writing in the Encyclopedia of Virginia, Nina Salmon, editor of the 2001 collection, says Spencer herself “explained that she wrote the poem in response to a lynching she had read about—perhaps the 1918 lynching of Mary Turner in Valdosta, Georgia—in which a pregnant woman and her unborn child were murdered.” Back then, Congress may have been too enfeebled to act, but not Spencer. “White Things” is the poetic analogue to Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” recorded 16 years later, when Congress, alas, was still too timid to act.
Spencer was politically active as well, pushing for increased black representation on the faculty of the local black high school and boycotting Jim Crow businesses. Reading various sources about her, it becomes clear that Anne Spencer was not one to be trifled with. As Green writes in the Times, Spencer “wore pants, which she had made because there was no place to buy them; she proudly ignored the old Jim Crow laws; and she scolded local politicians, black dignitaries and her own children in equal measure for any breach in conduct.”
Her heart rent by her husband’s death in 1964, Anne Spencer continued tinkering with her poetry until her own death at age 93 on July 27, 1975. Her legacy abounds.
“Spencer’s overall contribution has been to refocus critical attention on the stake that southern African American writers, virtually dismissed, have held in the enduring legacy of the Harlem Renaissance,” McCaskill writes. “At once homespun and urbane, her writings complicate the arbitrary amputation of New Negroes into either the folk, epitomized by Langston Hughes’s Simple stories, or the bourgeois mulattoes of Jessie Redmon Fauset’s novels. Finally, Spencer’s complexity advances our assessment of African American women writers in general, placing her at the center of a feminist renaissance midwifed by her forward vision.”
Today, thanks to their descendants, Anne and Edward Spencer’s garden home is a site of pilgrimage for writers, including the late Maya Angelou. Edankrall also is on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places.
Higgins writes in the Post, “With a restoration of the garden and the passionate ministrations of a returning family member [granddaughter Shaun Spencer-Hester, Chauncey Spencer’s daughter], the Anne Spencer House and Museum has become a window into a world that was connected to the Harlem Renaissance but generally overlooked in a not-too-distant and segregated past.” In person, and in print, the handiwork of poetess and gardener Anne Spencer remains in full bloom.
According to website of the Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum: “It has been said that it is as if she went out to the store and hasn’t returned yet. Phone numbers are still scribbled on the wall of Anne’s telephone booth in the front hall, and her magazines and newspapers, table settings, and kitchen utensils are still close by where she would have used them. The colorful upstairs bedrooms where the family slept, as well as where many important guests stayed overnight, are of interest.” Connecting with travelers remains a Spencer family tradition; you can even email Shaun Spencer-Hester through the museum’s website.
“God never planted a garden / But He placed a keeper there,” Anne Spencer once wrote. In truth, she was that keeper for the black artistic tradition. When you’re planning your next road trip through the South, of course you’ll find that there are now plenty of hotels in which you can comfortably lodge. Still, I hope you’ll go out of your way to visit the Spencer house and garden. From its soil—and all those inspired by its keeper’s hand—the Harlem Renaissance blossomed. Every time you pick up a novel by any one of our legion of superb writers, such as Toni Morrison or Alice Walker, Colson Whitehead, Rita Dove or Jamaica Kincaid, remember that the renaissance’s legacy flowers perennially.
As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.