Anne Spencer (née Annie Bethel Scales Bannister)
February 6, 1882 – July 27, 1975
Notable: Poet & activist
Annie Bethel Scales Bannister was born in Henry County, Virginia the only child of Joel Cephus Bannister and Sarah Louise Scales. Her parents had been born around the time of the Civil War and were thus of the first generation of Black children to grow up after emancipation. Joel had been born a slave and was of mixed Black, White, and Native American heritage. Her mother had been born a year after the Civil War ended to a formerly enslaved Black woman while her father was a White man rumored to have been a member of the wealthy Reynolds tobacco family.
When Bannister was still an infant, her parents relocated to Martinsville where her father opened a saloon. Unfortunately, they were soon at odds over how Bannister should be raised and Joel’s operation of a saloon clashed with Sarah’s principles. After a few years of turmoil, the couple separated and Bannister moved once again, this time with only her mother. They settled in Bramwell, West Virginia where her mother worked as a cook at a local inn to support the family. Sources vary but either as a result of needing help with childcare or financial difficulties, her mother left Bannister in the care of Willie and William Belle Dixie, a local prominent Black family.
Bannister had a lot of free time while living in the Dixie household as she didn’t have any chores. She also wasn’t attending school because her mother believed she wouldn’t benefit from the local school system. Despite being illiterate Bannister developed an appreciation for poetry and would find a quiet place to flip through magazines and pretend that she could read. Her father did not approve of Bannister being kept out of school by her mother and insisted she be enrolled in school or he would take custody of the child.
Sarah relented and Bannister finally began attending school at the age of eleven. She would spend the next six years at the Virginia Theological Seminary and College (now Virginia University of Lynchburg) from which she would graduate as its valedictorian. While attending school, Bannister returned to Bramwell during breaks but moved to Elkhorn and later Maybeury to teach after graduation.
On May 15, 1901, Bannister married Charles Edward Spencer and became Anne Spencer. The two had met while they were students at the Virginia Seminary and would go on to have three children after returning to Lynchburg. Their home at 1313 Pierce Street would offer many Black travelers a warm and welcoming place to stay as they had limited options for lodging due to Jim Crow. Many notable Black icons of the era stayed at the Spencer home and it became a gathering place.
Spencer returned to the Virginia Seminary where she taught for two years. She later spent over 20 years as the librarian at the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. Dunbar was the only local high school and library open to Black residents. Thus through both her home and work, Spencer provided support for the Black community. She was also actively involved in trying to improve circumstances for local Black residents through establishing a local NAACP branch and organizing a campaign to get more Black teachers hired at Black schools.
Through her work at the NAACP, Spencer came into contact with James Weldon Johnson when he visited Lynchburg to assist with the chapter. The meeting would have profound implications for Spencer. Dating back to her childhood, Spencer had nurtured an appreciation for poetry. Spencer penned poems of her own, writing at every opportunity and on anything she could find. Yet, she was apprehensive about having her work published.
During Johnson’s visit, he read some of Spencer’s poetry and tried to persuade her to have her work published. Johnson recognized Spencer’s work as being good but a bit outside the norm and her first contact with a potential publisher did not go well. When H.L. Mencken offered Spencer notes on her work, she took offense as he was not a poet. Yet, with feedback and continued encouragement from Johnson, Spencer’s poems began to appear in publications.
Despite remaining based in Virginia, Spencer is considered to have been part of the Harlem Renaissance due to most of her work being published during that period. Her poems were featured in several Harlem Renaissance magazines and anthologies. And she had friendships and relationships with many other Harlem Renaissance creatives.
While Spencer was very actively involved in various initiatives aimed at improving conditions for Black people, few of her poems directly addressed race in comparison to other artists of the time. Some of Spencer’s poems touched on nature, religion, spirituality, feminism, etc. She explained this in part as finding it easy to write about topics she loved but having some difficulty writing courteously about topics she hated.
Anne Spencer died from cancer on July 27, 1975, at 93 years old. Spencer wrote poems prodigiously but only about 30 were published as her public output trickled to a halt after Johnson’s death in the late 1930s. Unfortunately, excluding the poems that were published, few of Spencer’s other poems survived. Spencer’s family home and its grounds were designated as a Virginia Historic Landmark in 1976 and are open to the public for tours.
- “Anne Spencer.” n.d. Poetry Foundation. Accessed July 4, 2022. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/anne-spencer.
- Brandman, Mariana. 2021. “Anne Spencer Biography.” National Women’s History Museum. 2021. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/anne-spencer.
- Gomez, Skyler. 2021. “Anne Spencer, Harlem Renaissance Poet.” Literary Ladies Guide. December 17, 2021. https://www.literaryladiesguide.com/author-biography/anne-spencer/.
- Mchie, Benjamin. 2022. “Anne Spencer, Poet Born.” African American Registry. February 6, 2022. https://aaregistry.org/story/anne-spencer-a-poet-of-many-styles/.
- Salmon, Nina. 1882. “Anne Spencer (1882–1975).” Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities. February 6, 1882. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/spencer-anne-1882-1975/.
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