February 6th, 2016
Blog post by Stewart Plein, Rare Book Librarian.
“Not many things I know nor do,
This my poor heart
so vacant and so frail
can love you
can love you
itself of content
and of strength.”
Fragment of an unpublished poem written on a gardening catalog, pictured above
Today, February 6, we celebrate the 134th birthday of Anne Spencer, poet of the Harlem Renaissance, civil rights activist, teacher, librarian, accomplished gardener, and West Virginian.
Born in 1882 in Henry County, Virginia, Anne Spencer was born Annie Bethel Bannister, the only child of Joel Cephus Bannister, shown left, and Sarah Louise Scales, shown right. Though her father, Joel, was born into slavery, both parents were among the first generation of African Americans to grow up free.
At the time of Annie’s birth, Joel and Sarah worked on a plantation in Henry County, Virginia. Joel moved the family to Martinsville, Virginia, and following through on his desire to own his own business, he became a saloon owner. Annie, a beautiful child, was adored by both parents. Unfortunately, differences in child rearing, spurred on by antics in the saloon, led to the separation of her parents. It was then, after her parents separated, that Annie’s life in West Virginia began and her childhood in the state would prove to be the foundation for her life to follow; her poetry, her love of nature and gardening, and her desire to live a free life, unencumbered by racism or Jim Crow laws established to ensure racial segregation.
After the separation Annie’s mother Sarah adopted her maiden name, Scales, took Annie and moved to Bramwell, West Virginia. Her brothers had moved to the state earlier to work as coal miners. But Sarah had a cousin in Bramwell, William T. Dixie, who was a barber in town. Mr. Dixie owned his own barber shop and he and his family were prominent members of the African American community in Bramwell. Once mother and daughter arrived, Sarah took a job as a cook at the local Bluestone Inn to support her daughter, and made arrangements for her to board with the Dixie family.
The coal mining community of Bramwell was named for J.H. Bramwell, an engineer who dabbled in real estate. After selling most of the town’s lots, Bramwell moved to Switzerland, leaving his namesake town behind. Although the town’s origins began in about 1882, Bramwell wasn’t incorporated until 1888. Coal seams were so rich in the area that, at one time, Bramwell was called the Town of Millionaires due to the seventeen millionaires whose mansions still line the streets of Bramwell today and whose wealth was the product of coal.
As a young town, Bramwell was just coming to life at nearly the same time as Annie herself, and in the midst of development and the burgeoning coal industry, Bramwell had little time to consider race or stereotype. Bramwell was a community open to the immigrants and African Americans who came to live and work there. As a young African American child of the late nineteenth century, Annie’s life in Bramwell was free from the limitations that many African Americans faced in other areas of the country. Her best friend, Elsie Brown, was a white girl. The two remained close friends and Elsie was Annie’s bridesmaid at her marriage in 1901.
Elsie Brown, Anne’s best friend and bridesmaid at her wedding. Annie Bethel Bannister Scales, age 14, photographed in the nearby town of Pocahontas, Virginia.
Annie lived a life of great freedom in the Dixie home. Basically an illiterate child, Annie did not attend school because Sarah believed the local schools were not suitable for her daughter. Annie was also not required to share in the chores that the Dixie’s children regularly preformed, so she was free to roam the woods and the countryside at her leisure. Craving the education she did not have, Annie would take the Sears, Roebuck & Company catalog to the family outhouse and pretend to read, dreaming of a day when she could read. Mr. Dixie brought home magazines from the barber shop, and Mrs. Dixie read the sentimental novels of Laura Jean Libbey and Mary J. Holmes. With Mrs. Dixie’s assistance, Annie learned to read in a less than competent fashion.
Though her parents were still separated, Annie’s father learned that she wasn’t in school and demanded that she be enrolled or he would take her back to live with him. Sarah had heard of the Virginia Seminary, located in Lynchburg, Virginia, at a church meeting. She enrolled Annie there at the age of 11. Still largely illiterate, Annie thrived at the Virginia Seminary. She read poets that were to become lifelong favorites, Dickinson, Keats, Browning and Emerson. She wrote her first poem, called “The Skeptic,” now lost, keenly observing that what she was taught was not, perhaps, always the full story.
It was there at the Virginia Seminary that she tutored a fellow student in English, Edward Spencer, a local student from Lynchburg. After graduation, Annie returned to Bramwell to teach school in Elkhorn and Maybeury, West Virginia. Her relationship with Edward continued and they were married in Bramwell at the Dixie home in 1901.
Wedding portrait, 1901.
After her marriage, Annie and Edward moved back to Lynchburg where they would live for the remainder of their days, raising a family, working and gardening. Lynchburg proved to be a very different place than Bramwell and Annie experienced the Jim Crow South for the first time. She did not like it. Annie and Edward, and other community leaders, met to establish a chapter of the NAACP in Lynchburg. A representative of the NAACP, the noted novelist and poet James Weldon Johnson, came to Lynchburg, stayed in the Spencer home and discovered a few of Annie’s poems which he sent to his editor, H.L. Mencken. Annie had been writing poetry for herself for years, but now she had been discovered and Johnson suggested she use the pen name of Anne Spencer. Her poem, “Before the Feast of Shushan,” was published by W.E.B. DuBois in his magazine, The Crisis. It was Annie’s first publication. She was 40 years old at the time.
Anne Spencer, though politically active, largely based her poetry on her extraordinary garden and her love of the natural world. When she did write about political events she did so in pointed analogy, such as her poem, “Grapes: Still Life.” She sought a position as a librarian at the local Dunbar high school, showing the administrators her entry in the Norton Anthology of American Poetry, to prove that she could do the job. She was hired and served as librarian for the next 20 years.
Anne Spencer’s legacy lies not only in her poetry, which largely flourished during the Harlem Renaissance period, but also of her determination and defiance to make the world a better place. And as a child with little education, she was committed to seeing that others received an education.
Many books about Anne Spencer’s house, which is now a museum, The Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum in Lynchburg, Virginia, her garden and her poetry can be found in the West Virginia and Regional History Center.
Happy Birthday, Anne Spencer!
- Images: Courtesy of the Anne Spencer’s Papers at the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia: http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/u4700310
- Greene, J. Lee. Times Unfading Garden: Anne Spencer’s Life and Poetry. Louisiana State University Press. (1977). Biography of Anne Spencer.
- Anne Spencer: Ah, how poets sing and die!, Spencer, Anne. Ed. Nina V. Salmon. Lynchburg: Warwick House Publishing, 2001. Contains most of her published poems.
- White, Jamie Baber. Lessons learned from a Poet’s Garden: The Restoration of the Historic Garden of Harlem Renaissance Poet Anne Spencer. Lynchburg, VA, Blackwell Press, 2011.
- Sacred Spaces: The Home of Anne Spencer. Introduction by poet Jeffrey Beam. Photos by John M. Hall. Captions provided by Anne’s granddaughter Shaun Spencer-Hester and Jeffrey Beam in collaboration with Dr. J. Lee Greene, the biographer of Anne Spencer. The book accompanied an exhibit of Anne Spencer held at UNC-Chapel Hill February 2015 and are on exhibit through May 2015.
- Frischkorn, Rebecca T. and Reuben M. Rainey. Half my World: The Garden of Anne Spencer, a History and Guide. Lynchburg, Va.: Warwick House, 2003.
- Packert, Beth, editor. Anne Spencer Revisited: A Companion to the Film by Keith Lee. Poems by Anne Spencer, edited and with notes by Beth Packert; illustrated with photographs by Susan Saandholland. Lynchburg, VA: Blackwell Press, 2008.
- Anne Spencer Revisited: A Film by Keith Lee. Dance Theatre of Lynchburg, 2008.
- The Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum: http://www.virginia.org/listings/HistoricSites/AnneSpencerHouseGardenMuseum/
- Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_Spencer
- Anne Spencer’s Papers at the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia: http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/u4700310