Jasmine Heath ’18 MEd is scanning documents at Anne Spencer House, an historic home in Lynchburg’s Pierce Street Renaissance Historic District. Her “office” is a second-floor sunroom that overlooks the garden. Her “coworker,” currently hiding under a cabinet, is a black-and-white cat called G.H., short for Gregory Hayes. Heath is surrounded a sea of papers and ephemera belonging to the Spencer family, who lived in the red-shingled house for much of the 1900s and created legacies in literature, civil rights, and aviation.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, Heath, a graduate assistant in University of Lynchburg’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences, is scanning an epic poem about the abolitionist John Brown. Brown is famous for his failed attempt to start a slave revolt in 1859 by capturing the arsenal at what was then Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. The unfinished poem, scribed on a faded, yellow legal pad, was written by Anne Spencer, who lived in the house with her husband, Edward, and their children, daughters Bethel and Alroy, and son Chauncey.
Anne was a Harlem Renaissance poet, librarian, gardener, and co-founder of Lynchburg’s NAACP chapter, among other things. She also was the first African-American woman to have her work included in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. Edward, a Renaissance man in his own right, designed and built the modified Queen Anne-style home, incorporating discarded architectural elements he picked up along his route as Lynchburg’s first African-American parcel postman. Their son, Chauncey, was a pioneering aviator, advocating for black pilots before and during World War II and helping start what would become the famed Tuskegee Airmen.
In the first half of the 20th Century, the Spencers entertained a “Who’s Who” of African-American luminaries, including Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and others. The Spencer home also was a safe stopover for travelers in the Jim Crow-era South.
The work Heath is doing, digitizing evidence of the Spencer family’s contributions to history, is part of a new collaboration between University of Lynchburg and the Anne Spencer Foundation, which operates the Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum. “Our purpose is not only to preserve the material culture, but ultimately, to be able to share it,” Dr. Chip Walton, dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, said. “Anne Spencer House, like Historic Sandusky, has the potential to significantly bolster our work in digital humanities, making visual that which had been previous invisible.”
The partnership between Lynchburg and ASH&GM has been in the works since the fall of 2016, when faculty and staff met with the Foundation’s board. Steve Bright, the College’s vice president for business and finance, was at the meeting and said their initial conversation concerned goals. “What we really talked about were goals,” he said. “What their goals were, what ours could be, and whether they could be compatible.”
Bright said they also talked about Historic Sandusky, an historic house museum owned and operated by the College. “It would be a different model with Anne Spencer House, but we’d be interested in a relationship as long as it met their goals of perpetuating the house and the history that goes around it … and our educational goals of promoting diversity and the good things related to the Anne Spencer House, and to involve our students in that.”
Spencer’s granddaughter, Shaun Spencer-Hester, also wrote a letter to Lynchburg President Dr. Ken Garren. “We’re always looking for new partnerships,” she said, adding that through the partnership she hopes Lynchburg and Anne Spencer House can “help each other grow.”
This isn’t Lynchburg’s first involvement with Anne Spencer House. In the College archives, there’s a photo of members of the College community visiting the home in the mid-1940s. More recently, faculty members, including Dr. Nina Salmon, have incorporated Anne Spencer, her house, and gardens into lesson plans, research projects, and field work.
For several years in the early 2000s, Dr. Salmon’s English 112 (Composition II) class included Anne Spencer-related research and field study projects. Education majors presented programs about the poet at local schools and retirement communities. A music major performed a musical score written to one of her poems. Art students sketched the gardens. A student who also was an Emergency Medical Technician put together a first aid kit for use in the garden.
“It was an exciting time,” Dr. Salmon said. “Anne Spencer is a compelling research topic because of her many interests and the multiple points of entry for students to connect with her as a topic: the Harlem Renaissance, civil rights, poetry, gardening, education, women’s rights, etc.”
Dr. Walton agreed, citing the “possibilities for high-impact practices and experiential learning for our students.” He added that there are “obvious points of interest for our English majors and creative writing minors, inasmuch as her poetry is everywhere in the house, sometimes written on the back of checkbooks and on box tops.
“History majors will find a treasure trove of primary sources. Sociology majors will see the room that spawned the first NAACP organized in Lynchburg, as well as a rich, cultural space that hosted DuBois and Martin Luther King Jr. I should think the incredible, authentic garden holds immense possibility for our students interested in botany, as well as those pursuing environmental science and studies majors. One can also see great potential for students interested in art, architecture, and museum studies.”
Dr. Salmon has researched, written and lectured extensively about Anne Spencer. She also has served on the Foundation’s board. She still includes a section on the poet in her English 112 classes and believes the latest partnership with Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum “will augment the endeavors of both the museum and the College in such a way that the community and the wider region will benefit as well.”
She also said it creates a “balanced bookend” to the College’s current collaboration with Historic Sandusky, a house known for its Civil War history. “We expand our vision, our reach, our range, and our scope,” Dr. Salmon said. “The possibilities in this collaboration are truly remarkable, starting with opportunities for students and faculty scholarship and reaching to community and worldwide engagement through digital resources and on-site opportunities. I look forward to seeing what unfolds. Greg Starbuck and my colleagues in the history department have created a great model for collaborative partnerships thus far via Sandusky.”
The poet’s granddaughter, Spencer-Hester, also is excited to see what the future holds for Anne Spencer House and what the partnership will mean to the students who visit the house and garden as scholars and volunteers. “It’s up to us to find ways to engage, where we live, work, and study,” she said. “Hands-on learning and internships open eyes and doors. Students can engage in community volunteer opportunities wherever they go [after college] and find good causes to support and become active. They will thank Lynchburg for showing them how to give back.”