Anne Spencer was a lyric poet living in Lynchburg during the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s to mid-1930s. In addition to being a poet, she was also the librarian at Dunbar High School for twenty years and helped create a local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter. She lived in Virginia for most of her life and in Lynchburg for over seventy years.
Annie Bethel Scales Bannister was born on February 6, 1882 on a farm in Henry County, Virginia to Joel Cephus Bannister and Sarah Louise Scales. Her parents both came from mixed heritage: her father was of black, white, and Native American ancestry and her mother was the daughter of a slave and a wealthy white Virginian. When Anne was still young, her parents separated; she and her mother moved to Bramwell, West Virginia. At the age of eleven in 1893, Anne’s mother enrolled her in the Virginia Theological Seminary and College (now Virginia University of Lynchburg) for her formal education. Even though Anne was barely literate when she began her schooling, she gave the valedictorian address when she graduated in 1899.
While at Virginia Theological Seminary and College, Anne met a fellow student named Edward Spencer. Edward tutored Anne in math and the sciences and she tutored him in languages. The two were married in May 1901 and two years later moved into the home that Edward had built for them at 1313 Pierce Street, where they lived for the rest of their lives. The couple had three children: Bethel Calloway, Alroy Sarah, and Chauncey Edward. Anne was able to dedicate a great deal of time to reading and writing, as well as spending time out in her garden. Edward built a cottage in the garden named Edankrall: “Ed” from Edward, “an” from Anne, and “kraal”, the Afrikaans word for enclosure or corral.
Their home on Pierce Street was one of the very few in the African American community that had indoor plumbing and heating, so they hosted many African American celebrities who were visiting Lynchburg. Some of those visitors included Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, among others. One guest who was a great influence in Anne’s literary life was James Weldon Johnson. He was an NAACP official visiting Lynchburg in 1919 to assist Anne with starting a local chapter. During his visit, he discovered her poem “Before the Feast at Shushan” and encouraged her to publish it. It was included in the NAACP journal The Crisis in February 1920. This was the beginning of Anne’s ten years of publication and twenty years of friendship with Johnson.
In 1923, Anne applied for a position at the all-white Jones Memorial Library on Rivermont Avenue. She took a copy of Johnson’s The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922) to use as a reference; the book included five of her poems. She was offered the job, and early the next year, became the librarian at the Jones Memorial Library Extension at all-black Dunbar High School. She held this position for twenty years. During that time, she built up Dunbar’s original collection of three books at the school by supplementing her own books and those from Jones Memorial Library.
Anne lived in a tumultuous time when racial inequality was rampant throughout the country. She was quite outspoken against social injustice and stood for civil rights, women’s rights, and right of respect and dignity due to all people. Anne also scorned the segregated public
transit and would get around the city however she could. She frequently clashed with Lynchburg’s white society, but their interactions were not well documented. This excerpt from Dr. J. Lee Greene’s biography of Anne Spencer explains this well:
“For her outspoken provocations, Anne Spencer was subjected to ostracism, personal derision, racial slurs, and generally hostile attitudes during most of her adult life in Lynchburg. Yet she endured with strength, courage, and determination.”
Anne Spencer died July 27, 1975 at the age of 93. She was buried next to Edward, who died in 1964, at the Forest Hills Cemetery in Lynchburg. They left behind their three children, ten grandchildren, and fourteen great-grandchildren.
Written By Elizabeth Koroleski
Lynchburg Museum Staff
Elson, James M. Lynchburg, Virginia: the First Two Hundred Years 1786-1986. Lynchburg:
Warwick House Publishers, 2004.
“The Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum”, accessed November 13, 2015.