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  • Writer's pictureAlicia Shulman

Anne Bethel Spencer

This blog about gardener, civil rights activist, and poet Anne Spencer invites you to dig deeper into her life and find out more about this amazing woman in horticulture.

Anne Spencer in her garden, 1947

According to the Anne Spencer Museum, “Anne Spencer was a poet, a civil rights activist, a teacher, librarian, wife and mother, and a gardener.”

Early Life

Born on February 6, 1882 on a farm located in Henry County, Virginia, she was named Annie Bethel Scales Bannister. Her father was Joel Cephus Bannister, who had been born a slave, and her mother was Sarah Louise Scales, whose own mother had been a slave. Both of Anne Spencer’s parents were of mixed lineage.

Her parents moved to Martinsville soon after Anne was born, and her father became the proprietor of a saloon. Anne’s parents separated a few years later, whereupon she moved with her mother to Bramwell, West Virginia. Eventually, Anne was fostered to a prominent black couple, William Dixie and his wife. In 1893, when Anne was 11 years old, her mother enrolled her in the Virginia Theological Seminary and College (now Virginia University of Lynchburg) so that she could receive a formal education. Although Anne was nearly illiterate when she entered the seminary, within 6 years she gave the valedictory address at her graduation in 1899.

A fellow student at school, Edward Alexander Spencer of Lynchburg, tutored Anne in math and sciences, whereby she helped him with languages. The couple married in 1901. Edward had some acumen in construction and business, and he designed and built their home on Pierce Street in Lynchburg, complete with heat and indoor plumbing. Today, the home is the site of the Anne Spencer Museum. Later, Edward became Lynchburg's first parcel postman. Anne and Edward had 3 children, two daughters and a son.

Anne’s Garden

Anne was an avid gardener. According to the Anne Spencer Museum, “the original garden, with its young shrubs and trees, was an open, sunny garden with masses of flowers and grass paths.” Among the garden’s plants and features were roses, lilacs, bulbs, perennials, a grape arbor, a pond, and a pergola. The Hillside Garden Club has helped to maintain the gardens and undertook two major restorations of its ground and structures, once in 1983 and again in 2007. Both efforts earned an award from the Garden Club of Virginia. The garden itself, as well as its preservation and renovation, has been featured in several gardening publications, both nationally and internationally, and is the subject of a book, Lessons Learned from a Poet's Garden (2011), by Jane Baber White. To this day, many of Anne’s own shrubs, bulbs, and flowers, including her roses, still bloom on the property.

Anne and Edward sitting in the garden, 1937

Anne’s Cottage and Writings

Within the Spencer garden, Edward built Anne a cottage, which they called Edankraal -a combination of their names and the Afrikaans word for enclosure or corral. The cottage was where Anne wrote poetry, and over the course of her life she published over 30 poems. She became an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance, the Black literary and cultural movement of the 1920s. Anne was one of two African American poets whose works were included in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (1973). Her writings often centered on themes of religion, mythology, and nature. The Spencer home became a refuge for Black American travelers in the segregated South, as well as a salon for prominent intellectuals.

Influential in Her Community

Anne worked at the all-white Jones Memorial Library in Lynchburg, and she was also the librarian for the all-black Dunbar High School for 20 years. Additionally, Anne assisted in the founding of the Lynchburg Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She dedicated her free time to serving on local committees that worked to broaden the social, economic, and legal stature of Black Americans.

All information herein is extracted and adapted from the Website of the Anne Spencer House & Garden Museum. Accessed May 2022.


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