Arts Literature

Literary Gardener: A Southern Garden of the Harlem Renaissance

By Carol Howard

In 1903, newlyweds Anne and Edward Spencer built a home and garden in Lynchburg, VA that later became an oasis for Harlem Renaissance luminaries travelling through the Jim Crow South. Although the couple lived in this southern home throughout their lives, Anne is remembered as a poet of the 1920s African American arts movement centered in New York City. Edward, Lynchburg’s first Black postal carrier and an entrepreneur, built the Queen Anne shingle style house for the couple’s growing family. His incorporation of found materials into unique but well-appointed interior spaces offers a striking example of the artistry now called “upcycling.” For her part, Anne became as famous for her gardening as she did for the poems she wrote about love, gardens and racial injustice.

Stephanie Sipp, illustrator

In “To a Certain Lady, in Her Garden” (1927), addressed to Anne, Harlem Renaissance poet Sterling Brown wrote that, “close engirdled by . . . vines and flowers,” she had created a garden sanctuary amid the noisy downtown “din.” There was, Brown wrote, “no better cloister from the bickering hours.” In the refuge of her garden, Anne did, in fact, nurture lilac bushes, peonies, “Spanish Beauty” climbing tea roses and an array of bulbs. Paths of clipped boxwood hedges, along with a grape arbor and wisteria pergola painted robin’s egg blue, guided visitors through a series of outdoor “rooms” toward a circular pond. The pond featured a fountain statue of an African prince’s head, a gift from civil rights activist and scholar W. E. B. Du Bois. (Once, after a lapse in correspondence, Du Bois sent Anne a note, asking wryly if she were still alive and, if so, proposing a visit: “Are you and is your garden?”)

Visitors rightly associated the horticulture with Anne, but the garden’s hardscape features reflected Edward’s artisanship. Edward built a writing cottage for Anne dubbed Edankraal, a compression of the couple’s first names to echo “Eden,” combined with the Afrikaans word for a landscape enclosure. Through the couple’s joint efforts, the Spencer home and garden offered writers such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston a traveler’s escape from segregated businesses and transportation.

Such visits were not just social calls. Little more than a decade after African Americans began boycotting segregated Lynchburg trolley cars in 1906—a half century before the Montgomery bus boycott—early civil rights leader and poet James Weldon Johnson helped Anne establish a chapter of the NAACP, the charter for which was drawn up in the Spencers’ living room. Many years later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. accepted the Spencers’ hospitality amid a voter registration drive.

Anne and Edward Spencer left a progressive and artistic legacy based on a foundation of love and partnership in marriage. The strength of their creative lives together and their mutual respect, in turn, strengthened their community. Anne lived until 1975, surviving Edward by a decade. After her death, at age 93, the garden fell into disrepair. Through the ongoing efforts of the Spencers’ granddaughter and the local Hillside Garden Club, the garden has been beautifully restored and is open to the public. The Spencer home has been preserved as a museum, open to visitors by appointment.

Carol Howard is dean of academics at Warren Wilson College. Information for visiting the Anne Spencer home and garden in Lynchburg is available at AnneSpencerMuseum.com.

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