Opinion — A visionary artist of the Harlem Renaissance

Published 1:07 pm Friday, September 24, 2021

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From time to time I keep coming back to the Harlem Renaissance in my research. We know that it was a time of African American artists of various genres expressing their creativity by telling the stories of the black experience from the past and the present. Anne Spencer embodied that characteristic. This voice of the Harlem Renaissance was born Annie Bethel Scales Bannister on Feb. 6, 1882, near Danville. As an only child of Sarah Louise Scales and Joel Cephus Bannister, a former slave of African American, white and Seminole ancestry, Anne and her family relocated to Martinsville where her father opened a saloon. Mrs. Spencer began her education at age 11 at the Virginia Seminary in Lynchburg (now VA University of Lynchburg) with a distinguished academic career in literature and languages, eventually graduating in 1899 as valedictorian.

In 1901 Anne married Edward Alexander Spencer. Interestingly, the couple had been students together at VA Seminary. In fact, Edward became the first black postman in Lynchburg as well as an entrepreneur in construction and business. The couple were parents to three children Bethel, Alroy and Chauncey-2 girls and 1 boy. Chauncey became a pioneer in the field of aviation opening doors for other African Americans to become pilots. In 1903 the Spencers moved into a Queen Anne style home that Edward had designed and constructed living there the rest of their lives. The home today houses the Anne Spencer Home and Garden Museum. The prolific poet treasured her home and garden which she named Edankraal, a combination of their names and kraal, an Afrikaans word meaning enclosure and corral.

Not surprising Anne Spencer was a civil rights activist in the African American community, which inevitably began her poetry career. Anne and Edward frequently opened their home to African American travelers as many hotels and inns were off limits because of Jim Crow laws. Think Green Book. Many well known individuals such as W. E. B. DuBois, Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall were their guests. In 1918 Mrs. Spencer along with James Weldon Johnson helped established the Lynchburg chapter of the National Association of Colored People (NAACP) and furthermore, he recognized Anne’s talent as a poet and helped publish her poem “Before the Feast of Shushan” in The Crisis magazine in February 1920, which was a publication during the Harlem Renaissance. In addition, Johnson published Anne’s poetry in his 1922 anthology The Book of American Negro Poetry and by 1931 Mrs. Spencer’s poems were in various literary magazines. Even though she continued throughout her life to live in Virginia Anne kept close friendships with Johnson, Langston and Zora Neale Hurston, all forerunners in the Harlem Renaissance.

Ironically, Anne wrote numerous poems but published few of them after Johnson’s death in 1938; 30 in total. Then in her biography Times Unfolding Garden: Anne Spencer’s Life and Poetry by J. Lee Greene in 1977 two dozen more of her poems were published. Her style consisted of sonnets and most were short in length, at least 20 lines. The themes in Anne’s work were inspired by her garden, nature, religion and mythology.

Moreover, Anne taught for over 20 years from 1923 to 1945 as a librarian and teacher at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, the African American high school in Lynchburg at the time. Of course the subjects she taught were literature and language. Since the school’s library had a limited collection of books, Anne brought in her own volumes of work to share with her students as well as led a campaign to replace the white faculty with African American teachers. Consequently, she served on numerous local committees which supported social and economic improvements in her community. Anne would often write editorials to newspapers and letters to city officials addressing these issues. She even refused to ride on segregated buses and streetcars. Remind you of anyone?

Sadly, in 1975 at the age of 93 Anne died of cancer and is buried next to her husband at Forest Hill Cemetery in Lynchburg. Her honors include her home as a museum and a 2019 U. S. Postal Service stamp honoring her as one of the Voices of the Harlem Renaissance. A just and well deserved honor to bestow on her. Anne Spencer, as one of the voices of the Harlem Renaissance, from what I discovered, was a humble spirit who embodied in a person talent and creativity. Her inspiration of her home, garden and nature as well as a love and appreciation for literature and languages, fueled her passion for the beauty of the written word. As an educator and activist she passed that love on to future generations.

Judy Moore is a tour guide at The Central High Museum, Inc. living in Wylliesburg. She can be reached at v5agabond2@gmail.com.