This morning we're going to be visiting the Anne Spencer House in Lynchburg. It's off the beaten path as historical spots go, but Spencer was an interesting figure—both in her own right and in terms of the folks she knew or crossed paths with.
Last week we were here in Petersburg, then Farmville, then way down here in Danville. Today we're going to start one county over, Henry County, where Annie Bethel Scales Bannister was born on February 6, 1882. That's one year before the Danville Riot for those of you keeping score at home.
She was the daughter of a Joel Cephus Bannister, who had been born a slave in Henry County in 1862.
Her mother was Sarah Louise Scales, who was born after the war, in 1866, over here in neighboring Patrick County.
In this town called Critz.
Why does this matter?
Well, Sarah Scales was born on a plantation called Rock Spring.
It still exists. Here's the manor house. It was built in 1843 by Hardin Reynolds, a farmer, merchant, banker, and tobacco manufacturer. That was the year he married Nancy Jane Cox, of Mount Airey, North Carolina, and the couple had sixteen children.
Eight survived to adulthood, four of whom were sons, and one of whom was …
R. J. Reynolds, who founded his own tobacco company in nearby Winston-Salem in 1875. By the turn of the century, the company was producing a quarter of all the chewing tobacco in the United States. And by the time of Reynolds's death—of cancer, shockingly—in 1918, the company was paying nearly half of all income tax in North Carolina.
Amazingly, one of those original tobacco buildings in Winston-Salem still stands. This one was built around 1894—
Which is to say, when young Annie Bethel Scales Bannister was twelve.
Right—back to her. As I mentioned, Sarah Scales was born on the Reynolds plantation of Rock Spring in 1866.
And the Spencer family has long believed that Sarah's father was a Reynolds—RJ was just sixteen at the time of her birth, but maybe it was his brother A. D., who was twenty-two. We don't know whether this is true, of course. Rumors such as this one that are subjected to DNA testing sometimes turn out to be true and sometimes they turn out to be false.
But if true, it would connect Anne Spencer to RJ Reynolds but also to his great nephew, J. Sargeant Reynolds, who served as lieutenant governor of Virginia in the early 1970s.
Soon after Annie's birth, the family moved to Martinsville, where her father opened a saloon. Her parents split up, and she and her mother relocated to West Virginia. Sarah couldn't properly care for her daughter, however, and placed her in foster care.
When she was just eleven years old, Annie was sent to Lynchburg and enrolled in the Lynchburg Baptist Seminary, which had opened just three years before.
One of its founders, John M. Armistead, was himself the son of slaves. Apparently he was one of the great Baptist orators of his day
And when young Annie Bethel Scales Bannister enrolled, she could barely read and write. Six years later, she graduated as her class's valedictorian.
The school is still there, by the way, right where she left it. It's now Virginia University of Lynchburg.
Anyway, while in school, Annie met Edward Spencer, a fellow student who went on to become Lynchburg's first African American postman. The two married in 1901 and had three children—two daughters (shown here) and a son, Chauncey.
By the way, I have no idea what that crazy head thing is doing down there. It's not Chauncey, I know that.
From 1910 until 1912 Annie Spencer taught at her alma mater. And that's where she crossed paths with an extraordinary man who hailed from present-day Congo and belonged to the Mbuti tribe of what people still sometimes call pygmies. His name was Ota Benga.
You may have heard of him before and his story is just so … sad—I hesitate to dwell on it all that much. Virginia history can be a bit much sometimes, what with the slavery, the war, the riots, etc.
Ota Benga was about the same age as Spencer and lived a traditional life in the Congo when the territorial police raided his village, killing his wife and two children. That was around 1903. He was sold into slavery but eventually purchased by an American—
Samuel Phillips Verner, a Presbyterian missionary who was in the Congo looking for tribesmen such as Benga to display at the Saint Louis World's Fair in 1904. He paid a pound of salt and a bolt of cloth.
For reasons that are complicated, Benga stayed with Verner for five years until, late in 1906, he was housed in the Bronx Zoo.
These newspaper clips give you a sense of how absurd it was. He lived in the monkey enclosure with an orangutan, several chimpanzees, and a parrot. But he was allowed to roam the park freely during the day with a bow and arrow he used to shoot squirrels. Sometimes he had trouble with the crowds of people there to gawk at him. Other people protested loudly about the indignity of keeping him there while an elderly French woman wrote with an offer to purchase him.
When the backlash forced the exhibit to close, Benga lived in an orphanage on Long Island for three years. Then in January of 1910 he moved to Lynchburg to attend the seminary. That was when he met Anne Spencer and began to spend time with her at her house and garden on Pierce Street in Lynchburg.
Benga and Spencer's son Chauncey became friends.
In the end, though, Benga couldn't find peace in his new surroundings.
In 1916 he ended his life in Lynchburg and is buried at Old City Cemetery there.
ANNE SPENCER, POET
Eight years later, in 1924, Anne Spencer became the librarian of Lynchburg's black high school, Dunbar. The school library was the only library in the city open to black patrons, so in effect she was the city's chief African American librarian.
She helped found Lynchburg's chapter of the NAACP and led a campaign to hire African American teachers.
She also spent much of her time at home, writing.
In 1919 one of the early leaders of the NAACP, James Weldon Johnson, visited Lynchburg on business. Johnson had served as a diplomat in the Roosevelt administration, published an anonymous autobiography, and, under his own name, published a book of poems. He was an important figure of the Harlem Renaissance, or what was known at the time as the New Negro Movement.
Upon meeting Anne Spencer in Lynchburg he was quickly impressed by her poetry. She was prolific—
Jotting poems down on paper bags, the backs of envelopes, whatever was handy—
But not sure about publishing. Even Johnson admitted that her verses were "perhaps too unconventional."
He referred her and them to H. L. Mencken, the Baltimore journalist, literary savant, and publishing insider, but Spencer rejected his attempts at criticism and declined his help because he was not a poet.
In this way, I think, we get a hint at what Anne Spencer was like:
A bit eccentric
An artist but a fiercely independent one
Hardly a fame seeker
And perhaps even a bit of a homebody.
While many Harlem Renaissance types were quite naturally preoccupied by race, Spencer was not. Johnson once said that "practically none of her poetry has been motivated by race," and Spencer herself told her biographer:
"I write about some of the things I love. But have no civilized articulation for the things I hate."
What she loved was the natural world—something she shared with Ota Benga—and her home. In particular she loved her garden.
In one poem, a tribute to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Spencer contrasts the precision of English gardens—
"Primroses, prim indeed, in quiet ordered hedges"—
To the riotous beauty of the Blue Ridge:
Here canopied reaches of dogwood and hazel,
Beech tree and redbud fine-laced in vines,
Fleet clapping rills by lush fern and basil,
Drain blue hills to lowlands scented with pines …
The garden came to be a central part of Spencer's life and even of her fame. It hosted a cottage she called Edankrall, which combined her and her husband's names with sacred spaces such as the biblical Eden and the African kraal.
As early as the 1920s she turned the cottage into an artist's salon, hosting the likes of W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, and Gwendolyn Brooks.
Part of this was the fact that African American travelers were not welcome in most hotels for at least the first half of the century, which is why there was something called the Green Book. This one's from 1956, and for Lynchburg it lists a hotel, the YWCA, and four so-called tourist homes—what I imagine to be a bit like bed and breakfasts.
Edankraal became a tourist home for the black elite, a place where they could talk politics and literature and walk in the gorgeous garden.
Spencer died in 1975 at the age of ninety-three. There's more I wanted to talk about. Her son Chauncey, for instance, helped to found the Tuskegee Airmen. In 1939 he and a friend flew around the country promoting the idea of black pilots, although when the group actually formed during the war, he was excluded from flying because of his age. He served as a mechanic instead. And I wanted to mention that the airfield at Tuskegee was called Moton Field, after the institute's second principal, after Booker T. Washington, Robert Russa Moton. Moton was a Virginian who had taught at the Hampton Institute prior to going to Tuskegee, and the black high school in Farmville was named for him—Robert Russa Moton High School.
That matters because—and I mentioned this in passing last week—Moton High School is where students went on strike for better conditions in 1951. Their subsequent court case became Brown v. Board of Education.
Virginia history is like a giant jigsaw puzzle that fits together. The only thing better would be if one of the attorneys in Brown had been a Reynolds.