Restoring a Poet's Garden
The Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum in Lynchburg, Virginia, preserves the home of Anne Spencer (1882-1975), the first African American woman to publish a poem in the Norton Anthology of Poetry. She’s remembered as a poet of the garden; many of her poems deal with floral or natural subjects. Her home garden served as an informal gathering place for many Black thinkers and leaders in the Harlem Renaissance and in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
Spencer’s house and garden were restored and turned into a museum in the 1980s. Smithsonian Gardens interviewed Shaun Spencer Hester, Anne Spencer’s granddaughter, who is now the executive director of the Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum, and Jane Baber White, author of Lessons Learned from a Poet’s Garden (2011), who led the revitalization of the historic garden. Here are some highlights:
How did you go about restoring the garden?
Jane Baber White
I have a friend that I was in a landscape business with. We were young women, young mothers with teenage children and I don’t know - how old was I? Forty something. Forty-one. That was when I was a young thing too.
My landscape buddy took a phone call from Chauncey [Anne Spencer’s son] one day and he wanted her to come look at his garden. …I didn’t see Chauncey that day, but my friend took me there and it was just a mess. We were walking around in this jungle of a garden. You could see that it had been a garden though, and it had been loved, because there were remnants of garden things poking out, you know? There was a peony here or there, or a daylily or something, or a rose. Just a little bit in the middle of the jungle. And it really spoke to me. And that was kind of the beginning of it.
Since I was in that business of landscape restoration, I knew what to do. And I thought to myself, I’ve got to do this. I don’t know who this woman was, but she clearly was a gardener. I could tell it had all this charm to it, and the size of it was wonderful.
Somehow very soon after that I met Chauncey, Chauncey being Anne Spencer’s son who lived across the street. And he was a wonderful, wonderful character. To go into that garden with him was fun. He made it come alive even more, and explained things. “This post in the ground used to be part of the grape arbor,” or something like that. He was filling in some interesting blanks and all the while saying that he didn’t know a dandelion from a daffodil. And I did not believe him, but that’s what he said…
But he talked about his mother and I loved what he said. He said, “I want the garden to look like it did when Mother was here.” He wanted it to be like her garden again. And that was what I needed to know. I realized he was asking for help, and as I said, I knew what to do. I didn’t have the money to do it. … I was just feeling my way along.
I was a member of a wonderful garden club of ladies of all ages. Some were old matriarchs of early Lynchburg families. And some were just like me; they were sort of starting out learning to garden. And so I thought they might be interested. …I was kind of new at all this and a little apprehensive about going in. So one by one, I invited some of these grande dames to come with me over to the garden. And so it was a matter of convincing everybody I could think of, with the garden club; convincing them that this would be a worthwhile project. And, in fact, that’s what it turned out to be. …Turns out they were interested in not only providing some money, but when it came time they also provided flowers from their gardens that they dug up and shared. And that’s how the garden got re-planted after it got cleaned up.
I’m devoted to that group of ladies for what they did. And they had all been in Lynchburg forever and they just didn’t know about Anne Spencer either. Or know that, here was someone on the other side of town, African American, who had a garden every bit as pretty or as lovely as one they had. And I think they were just floored, just like I was.
How did you choose what plants to put in the restored garden? What did you base it on?
Jane Baber White
Chauncey gave me a bunch of snapshots of the garden through the ages with lots of different people in it. And those were just wonderful and very inspiring.
But the poetry also, from Time’s Unfading Garden, which is a book written about Anne Spencer and includes her poetry; one of the early books. In the poetry she referred to things that were there, like the grapes. She talked about the green globes of the Niagara and the purple flesh of the Concord. And Caco, “the beauty of the vine,” or something like that. So, that told you which varieties of grapes to re-plant.
Shaun Spencer Hester
I think that there were remnants of a grape arbor and remnants of a pergola. And certainly, the pond was there and Jane described a concrete bench at the pond. So, you have these structures, or remnants of these structures that were evidence of, that [White] could in reading the poem kind of piece these things together when planting.
And then she found this Caco grape, I think, just in Amherst County, to be able to plant. Also too, remnants that were left there, plantings that were left there, and also with her poetry. So, I think it was a combination.
So, we kept the flowers over on one side in one long path along the path rather than replanting the whole thing. But that was a judgement made after finding one of the pictures that Chauncey gave us. The picture was from 1937. It was sort of an aerial view and in that it showed grass rather than flower beds. So I felt a little bit better about restoring the thing to the 1937 appearance as best we could. As I said, it captures the spirit of the way it was in her day. And many of the things that they did are still there.
Jane Baber White
And I will say, one of the things, in addition to the physical landscape of the garden that helped restore this one, that and the poetry and Chauncey and so forth, was what Shaun kept finding in the house were these early magazines, like house and garden type magazines. And they would have lots of pictures of cottage gardens, and they would have lists of plants that were popular at the time. That was a very important resource. …[Anne Spencer] also had little seed packages around in her cottage. And you could see what she was growing, or trying to grow.
…In the garden we found a number of roses that were just kind of in the middle of overgrowth. So we saved every single plant, dug it up, and took it home to the garden club ladies’ garden, and they heeled them in there, and salvaged them that way.
…I found an old gentleman in town who really knew a lot about roses. He could look at it and in a minute he could identify the rose, which was a fascinating thing to me. All he had to do was look at what the thorn looked like and he knew the time period that that particular rose with that thorn had been popular. I learned so much from him. ….That was Carl Cato. Carl Cato was a Lynchburg gentleman who was extremely important in the Heritage Rose Foundation. And he became a best friend there for a number of years. He later told me that he had driven down Pierce Street at some point and seen this rose in bloom on the front corner of the Spencer house on a trellis, and that it was beautiful, and he came to a screeching stop, and he ran into the house. And that’s when he met Anne Spencer. He remembers that was the American Pillar Rose that was growing there at the time. I’ve learned a lot from him. He was just such a rose lover and of national importance. And I’m so thankful for what he taught me.
–[Anne Spencer] had Aloha and she had American Pillar, and Spanish Beauty which is a very spectacular one. And Crimson Glory, climbing Crimson Glory and climbing American Beauty. All together these make a great impact when they’re freshly blooming in May. Now, they don’t look so good when they’ve finished, but most roses don’t. And anybody can find a prettier rose garden than this one. It’s just that these are hers and that’s the important part. Still alive after however many years this is. And I love thinking of her poem that says that, “I plant the thorn and kiss the rose but they will grow when I am dead.” Now you don’t get any better than that.
Childhood memories of Anne Spencer’s garden
Shaun Spencer Hester
My grandmother had rules about the garden. Once she told us the rules one time, that was all I needed to know. My cousins that are males usually were escorted out of the garden or not allowed to come back into the garden because they were sometimes a little too rough in the garden.
But her rules were pretty simple. We couldn’t eat the grapes because the grapes were for the birds. My grandfather had a purple martin colony that returned every year. They were gone I think by the time I came along, but we still couldn’t eat the grapes. And there were still plenty of birds so maybe the birds were enjoying them then. We couldn’t pick the flowers. And we couldn’t get into the ponds. So, all of those things that kids want to do. But there were plenty other things to do in my grandmother’s house. We could write on the walls. We could, you know, paint pots. It was a really creative environment at least for me as a creative child to be in.
Famous garden visitors
Shaun Spencer Hester
Very often I think about that. If you read some of the letters, particularly from James Weldon Johnson, and W.E.B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes, and Sterling A. Brown as well—they often reference the garden. Sterling A. Brown even wrote a poem, “To a Certain Lady in Her Garden, A.S.,” Anne Spencer, that was published in his book titled Southern Rose. W.E.B. Du Bois writes, “where are you? Are you in the garden?” in a letter saying that he’s coming for a visit. To visit the shrine.
You know, you read those letters, and they’re not just coming for a visit to maybe talk about poetry, or literature, or politics, or education, or hiring African American teachers. I think that other than Du Bois, most of the visitors are Southerners, deeply-rooted Southerners that have been part of this migration to the north. They come to the Spencers’ home, who at that time have indoor plumbing and electricity, and which is a fine home to visit in. And it’s not on The Green Book directory, it’s not part of that kind of circuit that you can just kind of give a call and let them know you’re going to be in town and kind of stay there. These are people that are connected one way or another to each other or to the group.
I think that they’re also coming to enjoy this beautiful greenspace that reminds them of home, that is not this concrete world in New York, Philadelphia, or Chicago, where they’ve now migrated to. There’s familiar trees, and there’s familiar plantings. And it’s a familiar place that also reminds them of home. They’d have country ham and spoon bread. My grandparents definitely cooked and were great hosts and hostesses. But I think it was also just as much to come and enjoy this garden and to have that space of being free—its being another outdoor space to be creative. And a space that’s alive, that you can be alive in.
A special place
Jane Baber White
It’s very special to come to this garden. It really is. Every season is wonderful. And there’s always something to do in the garden as far as maintenance is required. The garden club ladies still enjoy coming back and it’s a social event when we have a workday. We all go down there and maybe have a picnic lunch or something. But everybody’s got plenty to do. It’s a real community builder.
Shaun Spencer Hester
…The Anne Spencer Garden since it’s been restored, we think, is the only known restored garden of an African American in the United States. And the important word there is “restored.” We certainly know there are other African American gardens. We know certainly of the Pearl Fryar garden [in Bishopville, South Carolina], and since we’ve come out with that statement just recently somebody said “well, you know there were plantations.” Well, we don’t consider the Anne Spencer House as being part of a plantation; we consider it to be a garden, which is very different than a plantation, and even the gardens that the African Americans would have had on plantations would have not been a flower garden in this grand scheme…
It’s still a really special place. I don’t say that because it’s my grandparents’ garden. There’s something, there’s some feeling that you get there. You get this reassurance or there’s this comforting feeling of being in the space and you know that the space was loved...
...She’s the first African American woman to be published in the Norton Anthology, that’s out there, but the thing is, the garden I think attracts the most people to the Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum. It’s not her literary contributions, it’s her gardening, and it really is quite something.