She was born Annie Bethel Scales Bannister in Henry County, Va., on Feb. 6, 1882. Annie was only an infant when her parents moved to Martinsville, Va., where her father, Joel Cephus Bannister, a saloon owner born into slavery, could practice his trade. When her parents separated a few years later, she was on the move again, this time to Bramwell, W.Va., to join her mother, Sarah Scales, the daughter of a slave mother and mysteriously unidentified white father (“a wealthy Virginia aristocrat, ‘well known in American aristocracy’ ” is how the Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum leaves it, though I’ve seen speculation that he may have been related to the Reynolds family—as in the R.J. Reynolds family).
“Your mother was never young,” Anne’s husband, Edward A. Spencer, would one day tell the family, according to Penelope Green in the New York Times. “She went from childhood to middle age.”
In 1893, Annie returned to her native state to attend the Virginia Seminary (today, the historically black Virginia University of Lynchburg) in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. She was only 11 years old. After graduating in 1899, she taught for two years in West Virginia before marrying Edward Spencer in 1901. That year the Spencers crossed the state line for good, settling in Lynchburg, which had served briefly as home to the state government after the fall of Richmond during the Civil War. The Spencer home would put the town on the map for a far different reason.
At 1313 Pierce St., Edward Spencer, a postal worker and all-around renaissance man, built his bride a Queen Anne-style home with a bountiful garden. That place was to be her salvation during her 20-year career as a librarian and teacher at the local Dunbar High School and as the mother of three, Bethel Calloway Spencer, Alroy Sarah Spencer and Chauncey Edward Spencer (a fourth child died ininfancy). The Spencers called their garden house “Edankraal,” which, as Adrian Higgins writes in the Washington Post, is “a blend of names and an Afrikaans word for dwelling or enclosure.” It became the doorway through which Anne Spencer hosted the fledgling black literary world.
Spencer had started writing poetry as a student at the Virginia Seminary, but it wasn’t until leading writer James Weldon Johnson discovered her work while staying with the Spencers on a business trip for the NAACP that she received the encouragement she needed to share her musings with the world. (Johnson was down from New York to help the Spencers and their neighbors form a local chapter of the NAACP.) Actually, Johnson had to lobby Spencer to release her poem “Before the Feast of Shushan” to him for publication in the Crisis in 1920.
Soon Spencer found herself in the vanguard of black poets in a renaissance that was just getting underway, with her work popping up in such influential outlets as Survey Graphic, Opportunity, Lyric and Palms. Even though she wrote more often about nature than about race, no anthology of the Harlem Renaissance could leave her out and still be considered worthy. And in 1973, Higgins writes, Spencer became the first African-American woman to have her work canonized in The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry.
Yet, astonishingly, while Spencer was alive, fewer than 30 of her creations appeared in print, and none after 1938. Hundreds more remained safe in her keeping. Still, what she gifted to the world, like her garden, flowered. As Barbara McCaskill writes in The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature, “Spencer flaunted tradition as much as she acknowledged it, laying claim to a modern poet’s signature with sinister rhythms, slanted rhymes, blunt rejection of religious dogma, and enigmatic symbolism.”