There is a long tradition of Black poets exploring personal connections to the natural world, utilizing the written word as medium for constructing histories both personal and collective. In many American “nature poems”, Black bodies have existed solely as workers, a series of backdrops removed from the beauty and complexities of nature. Trees in the American South are reminders of a history deeply intertwined with forced migration and labor. These same trees are also rooted in memories of home. Anne Spencer, a gardener, and wordsmith, absent from many contemporary discussions celebrating Black poetics, once said "I write about some of the things I love. But have no civilized articulation for the things I hate."
Anne Spencer was born Annie Bethel Scales Bannister in 1882 on a farm in Henry County, Virginia. Her father was born enslaved, while her mother is believed to be the child of a free black woman and a wealthy Virginia aristocrat. In 1893, seeking formal education for her daughter, eleven-year-old Anne was enrolled in the Virginia Theological Seminary and College. Spencer, who was barely literate upon enrollment, would graduate six years later as valedictorian of her class. While in school, Anne met Edward Spencer, a fellow student who would become her companion, an entrepreneur and Lynchburg’s first parcel postman.
A noted poet, civil rights activist, educator, and lover of nature, Spencer published her first poem in The Crisis, the official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) - the foremost civil rights organization in the United States. Alain Locke, known as the father of the Harlem Renaissance, highlighted her poem “Lady, Lady,” in his influential collection “The New Negro.” Spencer was the first African-American woman to be featured in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. It's believed that she may have penned 1,000 poems over seven decades, but fewer than 30 were published. Spencer was a poetic graffiti artist, writing everywhere and on anything - walls, ledgers, playbills, even shoe boxes. Her work and life read like a reliable compass that honoured nature, women’s rights and spirituality. Anne Spencer planted flowers on top of everything ugly, consistently interacting with the natural world, a dimension that demands attention and care. Her story is a human search for beauty in a complicated world - a search that requires sunlight, water, and love to fully bloom.
"We have a lovely home - one that money did not buy - it was born and evolved slowly out of our passionate, poverty-stricken agony to own our own home, our happiness."
- Anne Spencer
Portrait of writer Anne B. Spencer in her wedding dress, 1900. From an archive collected by James Weldon and Carl Van Vechten.
Edward Spencer, her devoted companion laboured diligently to give his wife a safe sanctuary. In 1903, he built her a two-story home created with scavenged materials. In the 1920s, an adjacent lot was purchased that doubled the length of their garden. He used this additional land, to build a writing cottage, named “EdanKraal,” combining the names Edward, Anne, and kraal; the Afrikaans word for enclosure or corral. In this sacred space, she could bask in flowers and creativity, often working into the wee hours of the morning.
In 1924, Spencer was hired as a librarian at Dunbar High School, the only library branch open to people of colour. She spent much of her time writing and serving on committees to improve the legal, social, and economic aspects of Black citizens. During this time, Spencer also helped to establish the Lynchburg chapter of the NAACP and lead a campaign to hire Black educators and improve the academic advancements of schools designated for students of colour. Spencer was an outspoken advocate for the rights of all human beings, using her home and garden as a lighthouse, a safe space for those affected by social oppression.
Poets, artists, and activists came to stay, write and recharge in the Spencer home. Their home became a salon for creatives, intellectuals and travelers who found hospitality when laws of segregation barred them from public hotels. Guests included James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and other luminaries. During a recent visit to Anne Spencer’s home, which is now a living museum and historical landmark recognized by the city of Lynchburg, Va., I became fascinated with how homes have historically offered protection and support for artists of colour. I thought about how racism and segregation have necessitated the development of sacred spaces. Why would the Spencers imagine and create a different place for themselves? Moreover, what is there to learn from the sheer imagery of Black writers, artists and activists gathering to paint the natural world with poetry? What form of self-love and rebellion occurs when black bodies sit gracefully in a garden bought and toiled with their own hands? Anne Spencer was audacious enough to create intentional happiness, despite systemic oppression lurking at her window. Her legacy is one of love, community, and creative perseverance.
Writers are consistently unpacking what is broken and what is beautiful. Sacred spaces allow us time to breathe, to unlock the hidden parts of ourselves so that we may exist fully in liberation. Elevating our ability to be creative, while supporting mental and spiritual wellness. Spencer’s home is a reminder that supportive spaces for laughter, good food, and powerful dreaming are all part of the creative process. I like to imagine that if I existed during this era, full of imagination and poems, there would be space for me to rest up, to create, to reclaim my relationship with the land, to carve out intentional joy. True wisdom is when we take the pen and tell our stories firsthand. At the core, it is when we empower each other to speak out loud that we ourselves become empowered. Anne Spencer’s journey is a grand reminder that reconnecting with the beauty of the natural world, and inviting others to do so, can only lead to reconnecting with the beauty within ourselves.