By Nora Pehrson
There are many poems to be found at 1313 Pierce Street, the red-shingled, Queen Anne-style house in Lynchburg, Virginia, where poet, civil rights activist, librarian, teacher, and gardener Anne Spencer (1882-1975) lived and worked for some seven decades. Step inside the house—you can do so through our Encyclopedia Virginia’s virtual tour—and you’ll find a colorfully decorated interior preserved just as it was in Spencer’s lifetime. Though she published fewer than thirty poems while living, Spencer wrote constantly and prolifically—her output is estimated at nearly 1,000 poems, many of which started out as fragments scrawled on receipts, playbills, envelopes, and the walls of her house. The tools of Spencer’s dual trades—poetry and gardening—are everywhere in her home, from the stacks of books and magazines, to the array of writing nooks, to her garden-oriented poem “Lines to a Nasturtium” painted in calligraphy on a kitchen wall. Outside, behind shrubbery, foliage, and flowers, much of it planted by Spencer, is her writing cottage, which she dubbed Edankraal, a combination of her and her husband’s names and the Afrikaans term kraal, meaning an enclosed community or dwelling.
In addition to expressing the vibrant creativity of its owner, 1313 Pierce Street is a lesson in African American literary and civil rights history. Papers displayed in the sitting room document the first meeting of the Lynchburg chapter of the NAACP, founded there by Spencer in 1917. And upstairs, guest bedrooms housed luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance, including James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, W. E. B. Du Bois, and many others. The Spencer house provided hospitality and safety at a time when Jim Crow laws barred African Americans from staying in hotels, eating in restaurants, and traveling freely in Lynchburg.
Spencer’s birthday was February 6, a fitting occasion to celebrate her intriguing life and her contributions as a writer and reformer. Born in 1882 on a farm in Henry County, Virginia, south of Lynchburg, Spencer attended the Virginia Theological Seminary and College in Lynchburg, where she studied mathematics, Latin, Greek, French, and English. She excelled in the humanities (but reportedly struggled with geometry) and graduated as the valedictorian of her class in 1899. There, she also met her future husband, Edward Spencer. The two married in 1901 and settled in Lynchburg, where they would go on to raise three children. In addition to being a writer, Spencer was a political reformer who advocated tirelessly for racial justice in Lynchburg. An early practitioner of the bus boycott, she chose to walk rather than ride on Lynchburg’s segregated public transportation. In 1924, she began a twenty-year career as the librarian at Lynchburg’s Black high school, Dunbar High School, then the only public library open to African Americans in the city. Over the years, Spencer donated many of her own books in an effort to improve the sparse and inadequate collection provided by the city. Her poem “Dunbar,” which begins and ends with the line “Ah, how poets sing and die!” and was anthologized in James Weldon Johnson’s Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), may convey the frustration she felt trying to overcome the odds of an unequal facility to share literature with young readers.
Spencer’s involvement in the NAACP brought her in contact with Johnson, the executive secretary of the organization and a leading writer of the Harlem Renaissance (then known as the New Negro Movement). He became Spencer’s link to the literary world outside of Lynchburg, encouraging her to submit her poems for publication in the NAACP-run literary journal The Crisis (but not before suggesting edits to lines he found “perhaps too unconventional” for a popular audience). With Johnson’s support, Spencer’s poem “Before the Feast of Shushan” was published in The Crisis in February 1920. She was forty years old. You can view the poem as it was originally published (and as Spencer would have seen it) in this digitized version of the magazine, offered by the Library of Virginia.
In following years, Spencer’s poems were anthologized in other important literary magazines and poetry anthologies, including The New Negro, edited by Alain Locke (1925) and The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1949, edited by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps (1949). Spencer was also the first African American woman to be included in The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (1973). Most recently, three of Spencer’s poems were included in the 2020 Library of America anthology African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song, edited by Kevin Young.
Despite her many achievements, and being well-known in her time, Anne Spencer is not a household name today. Why is this? It could be because her published body of work is relatively small, or because she has been overshadowed by her male contemporaries, or because she was based in Virginia, not Harlem. It’s possible, too, that even today readers may find themselves deterred, like Johnson initially was, by the sometimes “unconventional,” often challenging character of Spencer’s verse, where slanted rhymes, intricate rhythms, and cryptic, layered symbolism are defining characteristics. These techniques can be intimidating on the page, but it’s worth it to read Spencer carefully. Frequently, her elaborate constructions track the worthwhile process of discovering beauty in unlikely circumstances. Consider the poem “At the Carnival,” an ode to a mermaid performer at a run-of-the-mill fair. The mermaid’s “radiant inclusive” presence dazzles the crowd and the skeptical speaker, and, by the end of the poem, the fairgoers have recovered a sense of wonder and community (the poem begins with “I” but shifts to “we”):
I came incuriously—
Set on no diversion save that my mind
Might safely nurse its brood of misdeeds
In the presence of a blind crowd.
The color of life was gray.
But oh! Girl-of-the-Tank, at last!
Gleaming Girl, how intimately pure and free
The gaze you send the crowd,
As though you know the dearth of beauty
In its sordid life.
We need you
It’s also easy to overlook Spencer’s vision for reform, since, with a few notable exceptions (like her protest poem “White Things,” likely inspired by the 1918 lynching in Georgia of a pregnant woman named Mary Turner), her poetry seems less overtly concerned with issues of race, social justice, and feminism. Instead, Spencer tended to focus her attention on images of the natural world, the garden, and the home, Kraal-like spaces from which she gathered the strength and the focus necessary to her work both as a reformer and a poet. This is clearest in “Taboo,” an unpublished, undated poem available for viewing in handwritten form here.
Being a Negro Woman is the world’s most exciting
game of “Taboo”: By hell there is nothing you can
do that you want to do and by heaven you are
going to do it anyhow—
We do not climb into the jim crow galleries
of scenario houses we stay away and read
I read garden and seed catalogs, Browning,
Housman, Whitman, Saturday Evening Post
detective tales, Atlantic Monthly, American
Mercury, Crisis, Opportunity, Vanity Fair,
Hibberts Journal, oh, anything.
I can cook delicious things to eat. . .
we have a lovely home—one that
money did not buy—it was born and evolved
slowly out of our passionate, poverty-
striken agony to own our own home.
Though Spencer was never entirely forgotten, it’s safe to say her poetry deserves a wider readership. You can read a sampling of her poems here, on the Anne Spencer House & Garden Museum website.
The biographical information in this article came from Nina Salmon’s Encyclopedia Virginia entry on Anne Spencer.
To hear from Shaun Spencer-Hester, Anne Spencer’s granddaughter and the director of the Anne Spencer House & Garden Museum, listen to “A Poet on Pierce Street,” a 2019 episode from Not Even Past, the Encyclopedia Virginia podcast.
The Anne Spencer House & Garden Museum is currently closed to the public, but visit the website for updates about a reopening date.