Spencer was born Annie Bethel Scales Bannister to Joel Cephus Bannister and Sarah Louise Scales on February 6, 1882, on a farm in Henry County. Both parents were of mixed lineage. Her father, born a slave in Henry County in 1862, was of black, white, and Seminole Indian ancestry. Her mother was born in 1866 on Reynolds Plantation in Critz, in neighboring Patrick County. According to Spencer’s biographer, J. Lee Greene, Sarah Louise Scales “was an illegitimate child; her mother was a former slave and her father a wealthy Virginia aristocrat … well known in American aristocracy of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” Rumors passed down in the Spencer family have long suggested that Sarah’s father was a Reynolds, which would have made her a close relative of R. J. Reynolds and.
Soon after Spencer was born, her family left their Henry County farm for Martinsville, where her father opened a saloon. When Bannister’s fervor for financial security clashed with his wife’s investment in morality, the couple separated. In 1886, Scales took Anne with her to Bramwell,, but was unable to care for her. First, she placed Anne in the foster care of William Dixie and his wife, a prominent black couple in Bramwell. Then, in 1893, wanting a better education for her daughter, Scales enrolled the eleven-year-old in the Virginia Theological Seminary and College (now Virginia University of Lynchburg).
Although Spencer left Bramwell barely literate, when she graduated from the Virginia Theological Seminary six years later she was valedictorian of her class. While in school, Anne met Edward Spencer, a fellow student who would become Lynchburg’s first parcel postman. They married in 1901 and the couple went on to have three children: Bethel, Alroy, and Chauncey. (Later Chauncey Spencer would help to initiate the training program that produced the Tuskegee Airmen.)
Spencer taught at her alma mater from 1910 until 1912. While there, she met and tutored, a pygmy who had been brought from the Belgian Congo and who had been placed on exhibit at the 1904 Saint Louis World’s Fair and the Bronx Zoo for several years before being sent to Lynchburg.
In 1924, Spencer was hired by the Jones Memorial Library’s board of trustees to work at the Dunbar High School library. Dunbar was Lynchburg’s African American high school and its library the only branch open to African Americans in the city. Between these two jobs, Spencer spent much of her time writing and serving on committees to improve the legal, social, and economic aspects of African Americans’ lives. During this time, Spencer also helped to establish the Lynchburg chapter of the NAACP and led a campaign to hire black teachers in black schools.
The relationship between Spencer’s race, her politics, and her poetry is complex. Although a civil rights activist, she opposed school integration as “tokenism,” and she did not address the issues of African Americans in her poetry nearly as often as did other Harlem Renaissance artists. Johnson once declared that “practically none of her poetry has been motivated by race,” and while that was an exaggeration, Spencer seemed more protective of her artistry than of her race. She explained her range of subject matter to Greene, saying, “I write about some of the things I love. But have no civilized articulation for the things I hate.”
In “White Things” (1923), one of her best known exceptions to Johnson’s claim, Spencer explored “whiteness” and how its supremacy is maintained only through the violent destruction of all things colored. Spencer explained that she wrote the poem in response to ashe had read about—perhaps the 1918 lynching of Mary Turner in Valdosta, Georgia—in which a pregnant woman and her unborn child were murdered. The poem opens with the observation that “Most things are colorful things—the sky, earth, and sea. / Black men are most men; but the white are free!”
Several lines later, the white “wand of power” has reduced the hills of “red and darkened pine” to blanched wastelands and has turned the “blood in a ruby rose / To a poor white poppy-flower.” The poem’s final verses turn from the transformative devastation that whites inflict upon the “natural” world to the violent “whitening” of blacks through their transmutation to ash and bone in the act of lynching:
They pyred a race of black, black men,
And burned them to ashes white; then,
Laughing, a young one claimed a skull,
For the skull of a black is white, not dull …
Critic Keith Clark, in his essay on Anne Spencer in Notable Black American Women, suggests “White Things” has come to be seen as “the quintessential ‘protest’ poem.” But given the graphic description and subject matter, Spencer’s editors at The Crisis found it unnerving and asked for revisions. Typically, she refused.
At other times, Spencer eschewed politics for primroses. “Life-Long Poor Browning” is at once a formally structured tribute to her favorite poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and a mystic retreat into the natural world. Echoing Browning’s formality and constraint, she contrasts the precision of English gardens—”Primroses, prim indeed, in quiet ordered hedges …”—to the riotous beauty of Spencer’s familiar Blue Ridge Mountains:
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 …
According to Spencer’s biographer, J. Lee Greene, she wrote constantly, “on paper bags, in the margins and fly leaves of books, on envelopes, on tablets, on the telephone bill, on the back of a check.” “Dear Langston,” addressed to her friend and frequent correspondent Langston Hughes, appeared as a notation among Spencer’s papers. The poem seems to express frustration at her perceived inability to complete anything. In the early 1970s, Spencer admitted to Greene that she had a reputation for never answering letters, but she explained herself by saying, “I answered every letter I ever received, though at times—too many times—that answer did not get on the paper or in the mail.”
The Garden Years
Anne Spencer died of cancer in Lynchburg at the age of ninety-three on July 27, 1975. Her house and garden at 1313 Pierce Street are maintained and open for tours. The Anne Spencer House became incorporated shortly after the house was designated as a Virginia Historic Landmark in the autumn of 1976.
- “The Poems” (in Time’s Unfading Garden: Anne Spencer’s Life and Poetry, by J. Lee Greene, 1977)
- “Before the Feast at Shushan” (in The Crisis, February 1920)
- “Dunbar” (in The Crisis, November 1920)
- “White Things” (in The Crisis, March 1923)
- “Lady, Lady” (in Survey Graphic, March 1925)
- “Lines to a Nasturtium (A Lover Muses)” (in Palms, October 1926)
- “Rime for the Christmas Baby (At 48 Webster Place, Orange)” (in Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, December 1927)
- “Grapes: Still-Life” (in The Crisis, April 1929)
- “Requiem” (in The Lyric, Spring 1931)