An Ode to Home: Historic House and Garden Museum Honors Poet Anne Spencer
On the second floor of the historic Anne Spencer House in Lynchburg, Virginia, is the bathroom known in the Spencer family as the “Du Bois bathroom.”
The room is painted in green with blue wooden trim. A colorful flowered print with green leaves and a patterned background covers the floor. The purple sink, salvaged from a local hotel, still works.
The nickname derives from one of the many renowned visitors to the house when Anne and Edward Spencer lived there: NAACP co-founder W.E.B. Du Bois. Anne Spencer’s granddaughter Shaun Spencer-Hester, who today serves as executive director and curator of the Anne Spencer House & Garden Museum, tells the story behind the moniker.
Du Bois had been invited to give a lecture at a local college in the 1910s. But the school did not have indoor plumbing, and he wanted to freshen up after his talk. So school officials called the Spencers to ask if the celebrated sociologist and historian could use their bathroom.
That’s how Du Bois met and befriended Anne and Edward Spencer. He’d subsequently visit their home at 1313 Pierce St. again, as would many other scholars, writers, and civil rights leaders, including Langston Hughes, Martin Luther King Jr., and Zora Neale Hurston.
Those visitors were likely drawn not only to the company of the Spencers, but also to the intersection of familial comfort, intellectual curiosity, and vibrant design that abounds throughout the Anne Spencer House & Garden.
Most of the current furnishings are original to the house; Spencer-Hester and her father, Chauncey Spencer, worked to preserve them as a way of honoring the Spencers’ legacy.
Today, Spencer-Hester shares the stories of these spaces with visitors to the site. She details the profound work of Anne Spencer, an acclaimed poet, librarian, and civil rights activist, and Anne’s husband, Edward, who worked as Lynchburg’s first Black parcel mail carrier as well as an entrepreneur and businessman.
“African American spaces are not as frequently preserved, particularly those like the Anne Spencer House & Garden that are homes and domestic spaces representing peace and sanctuary, and not a direct memorial to trauma and violence,” says University Distinguished Professor at Colorado State University Camille T. Dungy. Dungy’s most recent book, Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden (Simon & Schuster, 2023), contains a section that features Anne Spencer.
Noelle Morrissette, director of African American and African Diaspora Studies at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, highlights Spencer’s important work as a “pathbreaking” poet during the New Negro Renaissance, which she describes as “a more geographically inclusive name for the same period as the Harlem Renaissance.” She points out that Spencer mentored other young poets while also engaging in dialogue and discourse with established poets and civil rights leaders.
“But perhaps most important of all, in our contemporary moment, we look to Spencer and see an avid gardener, environmentalist, and activist for civil rights from her local setting of Lynchburg, Virginia, outwards to the world,” Morrissette says. “Anne Spencer’s vibrant life is a lesson to us all about community-building for individual and collective empowerment and for equitable life practices—in the educational setting and beyond.”
Anne and Edward Spencer moved into the Queen Anne–style house—built on land that was once a Confederate camp and recruitment site—around 1905, just a few years after they’d married. Both had graduated from Virginia Seminary, a preparatory institution for African Americans that evolved into what is today Virginia University of Lynchburg.
Their daughters, Bethel Calloway and Sarah Alroy, and their son Chauncey Edward would all go on to attend college. Education was of paramount importance to the Spencers, as was advancing civil rights. In 1911, along with several other community members, the couple founded the Lynchburg chapter of the NAACP, and they held the initial charter-development meeting in their living room.
Anne was a prolific reader and writer, and many of the Spencers’ visitors were Harlem Renaissance writers who encouraged her literary career. She, in turn, hoped to grow that interest for other African Americans. In 1924, she became a librarian at Lynchburg’s first library for Black citizens, inside the city’s segregated Dunbar High School. She stocked the library with many of her own books and worked there until her retirement in 1945.
In addition to her literary achievements—her work was highlighted in many anthologies, including The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry in 1973—Anne loved gardening, and cultivated outdoor spaces for writing and reflection. Edward, an avid builder who died in the 1960s, helped craft these spaces. In 1975 Anne died at the age of 93, and the Spencer house and other properties from Edward’s real estate endeavors were left to their children, who kept the original house and sold the rest.
After a worldly career as a parachutist and aviator and serving in high positions in the government and military, Chauncey Spencer returned to Lynchburg and bought out his sisters’ shares for full ownership. An antiques collector, he had long appreciated historical artifacts. That appreciation lives on in objects throughout the house, from Anne’s perfume and lipstick, still sitting on her dresser, to the desk that Edward made for her in the living room. In 1977, the house became a Virginia Historic Landmark and opened for public tours as a nonprofit.
Several of Chauncey’s eight children were in or about to enter college at the time. Spencer-Hester says it would’ve been prudent for him to sell the house and use the profits toward their college tuition.
“But this was his home,” she says. Her father wanted to keep the house—and each room—intact. He even lived across the street so he could easily maintain the property.
Chauncey died in 2002; Spencer-Hester, who has a background in interior design, took over care of the house in March of 2008. Up until that point, she says, no aspect had been restored. The walls had layers and layers of wallpaper, and she began meticulously taking some of them down. She started replastering the walls, but also wanted to keep the authentic, aged look.
“This house was lived in,” she says. “It would’ve been dinged and dented.”
Many of the rooms contain writing desks. Visitors often ask where Anne Spencer wrote her poetry, and the answer is simple: everywhere. “You can see this person was constantly thinking about words, because sometimes she’d reach out and write something wherever she could,” Dungy says. That includes the walls of her bedroom and her garden cottage.
The closet-size space below the stairwell, known as “the telephone booth,” holds a wicker chair and an old telephone on a shelf. On the pink walls, handwritten phone numbers, names, and Anne’s writing cover the space.
With her book-lined shelves and her desks stacked with newspapers from around the world, friends like poet Sterling A. Brown would stop by to read and peruse the daily happenings. The living room desk displays original papers from the NAACP that Spencer-Hester found in the house, as well as other letters and notes written to and from her grandmother.
One, from Du Bois to Anne, dated September 7, 1934, reads: “Dear Anne Spencer: Are you and is your garden? I have heard from neither in so long that I have doubts. If you exist, and plants and birds are blooming and singing, I may drive by in mid-September. Please let me hear from you in a hurry. Very sincerely yours, W.E.B. Du Bois.”
A circular paint-on-plaster artwork from the 1930s by artist and designer Amaza Lee Meredith graces the living room mantelpiece. Meredith, related to the Spencers by marriage, was a close friend of Anne’s. She went on to establish the art department at Virginia State University and built an International Style house there, which is now a Virginia Historic Landmark. Another work by her, a mosaic of handmade ceramic art tiles, lines the wooden panel above the dining room fireplace.
“Even now, it sets into you that you are taking care of something here that is really special,” Spencer-Hester says, pausing as she looks at the tiles.
A Western Union telegram from Anne Spencer to Meredith, thanking her for the pieces, rests above the mantel. In discovering artifacts like these, “I can tie these stories together,” Spencer-Hester says. She plans to write a book about the history of the family, the house, and these preserved objects.
A painting displayed on the side hutch depicts Anne and
Edward Spencer; the artist is another example of the extent of the community
the couple built. Locals identified the young Lynchburg native Lawrence Arthur
Jones as a gifted student and artist. Anne wrote letters to members of the
community to raise funds to send him to school. Jones later got a job working
for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), teaching art to students in
Louisiana. He eventually established the art department at Jackson State
University in Mississippi.
The Spencers expanded their home with a two-story addition in the 1920s. Their children were at college but made frequent trips home. Famous visitors passed through regularly. Edward’s siblings lived nearby with their families, and the sunroom off the kitchen served as a main gathering space. Anne’s Barcalounger, adorned with her yellow scarf, sits opposite Edward’s red leather chair. As in other rooms, Anne had books all around her, “a little trail leading to her chair,” Spencer-Hester says.
A red-padded door on the back kitchen wall is one of Edward’s many salvaged finds—an original door from the Harrison Theater, the African American theater in Lynchburg at the time.
Meredith stenciled and then painted one of Anne’s poems, A Lover Muses, onto contact paper. The poem hangs vertically next to the red door.
Anne’s mother, Sarah Louise Scales Bannister—who, like Anne’s father, had been born enslaved—lived with the family. In her room, a rotation of outfits are displayed on a mannequin. Lately, Spencer-Hester has pushed to attract younger visitors to the museum; in doing so, she has chosen to show clothing that correlates with the fashions of today. Curating Anne Spencer’s collection of clothing and jewelry is her next big project, she says. The whole house, she adds, needs to be photographed and inventoried, with its stories written and documented.
Soon, she’ll have more time to do so, she says, thanks to a $150,000 grant from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund (AACHAF), a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Awarded to the Anne Spencer House & Garden Museum in 2022, the money will allow her to hire an executive director to handle fundraising so she can focus on longer-term projects.
“I’m fascinated by Anne and Edward’s—I call it, like, a bright flair,” Dungy says. “They’d find things and use them and build just a remarkably gorgeous, inviting space, during a really, really inhospitable time for Black people in American history. They built this space that was so welcoming and warm and bright and wholesome … I really feel their actions and intentionality when I’m in that building and garden, differently than I could comprehend it [by] just reading about their work.”
Among the other upstairs rooms is the linen room, a narrow space that served as Chauncey’s nursery. An ironing board folds down from the wall. Chauncey later slept in the space on a metal bed, directly under a window that leads out onto the first-floor porch roof. Easy access to sneak out, Spencer-Hester says, laughing at her father’s teenage antics. Spencer-Hester has converted this space to honor Chauncey with plaques, informational displays, and news clippings detailing his aviation accomplishments and other career achievements.
Just as inviting as the house is the expansive garden space out back. In 1983, a friend of Chauncey’s recommended he contact Jane Baber White, a local landscape gardener and designer, to help him. They preserved many of Anne Spencer’s original plants and trees, including her cedars and roses, while also revitalizing the serene outdoor space. The garden won Garden Club of Virginia awards in 1985 and 2009; in 2011, Spencer-Hester had the pergola restored.
The naming of spaces and places was important to Anne; she called her garden cottage “Edankraal,” an amalgam of her and Edward’s names and kraal, the Afrikaans word for “enclosure.” A metal-painted sign displays the name just above the door of the cozy cottage, where Anne loved to write, reflect, and read. Locally sourced greenstone forms the floor; for many years, Lynchburg held one of the only greenstone quarries in the United States. Photos line the walls, a family history detailed in black and white.
University of Virginia architecture professors Elgin Cleckley and Lisa Reilly and English professor Alison Booth taught an interdisciplinary course focused on the museum during the 2021–22 school year. They worked with Spencer-Hester to allow the students to design interpretive projects; as a result, glass panels, adorned with Spencer’s poetry and her image, hang from structures inside the garden. “We wanted to place Anne Spencer and her work in the garden with her poetry and photos,” Spencer-Hester says.
A small pond highlights a gift from Du Bois—a bust that spouts water, thanks to an underground piping system that Edward designed. Goldfish swim in the pond, with water lilies floating on the surface. Edward built a concrete bench beside the water, where he and Anne and their visitors could sit and talk.
Another one of Spencer-Hester’s next projects is building “Pop’s Chicken House” in the rear yard. A nod to the chicken coop Edward kept, the building will serve as an educational center. She hopes to break ground on it this fall.
“My experience of the Spencer House & Garden Museum is visual, tactile, and engaging of all the senses,” says Noelle Morrisette. “The vibrant interior colors; the lush, small garden; and more than anything, the stories attending the many spaces of the house and garden honor the spirit of Spencer and her love of nature and of living well—defiantly so.” Morissette sometimes worked in the cottage while researching her book Anne Spencer Between Worlds (University of Georgia Press, 2023) and says she was inspired by sitting in the space filled with family history. “My grandmother glided through life,” Spencer-Hester says. Not in an angelic way, she clarifies, but with quiet confidence, even amid the continued segregation of the Jim Crow South.
Honoring her is part of what compels Spencer-Hester to continue the family’s legacy. Now, her ultimate hope is to leave the house even better than it was when she arrived in 2008 so their story can reach more people.
Anne and Edward, she points out, had no idea how influential they would be. She alludes to the U.S. Postal Service’s 2020 series of Harlem Renaissance stamps, which includes an Anne Spencer stamp. “My grandfather was a postal carrier. And now who’s on the postage stamp? Anne Spencer.”
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