CHAPTER 5. VERNON JOHNS ATTENDS VIRGINIA SEMINARY, 1912-1914

Criticism of Booker T. Washington

When Vernon Johns was eleven, W. E. B. Du Bois (1903) came out with his famous book The Souls of Black Folk. It was one of the opening salvos against the Booker T. Washington accommodationist strategy and a clarion call for the establishment of the N.A.A.C.P. As the N.A.A.C.P. grew it started to spread to various communities, finally coming to Lynchburg, Virginia. Vernon Johns was later to meet and be affected by one of the locals involved in the N.A.A.C.P., the black poet Anne Spencer of Lynchburg.

In 1901, when criticism of Washington had practically vanished, there appeared the most famous of all the anti-Tuskegee papers, the Boston Guardian, edited by William Monroe Trotter. The first Negro elected to Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard, Trotter was an uncompromising foe of all forms of segregation and discrimination. Trotter maintained that Washington was an agent of the forces of oppression.

The most influential dissent from Washington's policy came from Du Bois. Du Bois was educated at Fisk University and then at Harvard, earning his Ph.D. in history there in 1895. He was briefly an instructor at Wilberforce and at the University of Pennsylvania, then for thirteen years headed the Department of History and Economics at Atlanta University. There he devoted himself to training a generation of college-educated blacks as racial leaders and to editing annual surveys of various aspects of Negro life. Du Bois looked to the exceptional men -- the "talented tenth," as he called them -- to pull the race up, and he looked to colleges like Atlanta to produce them (Broderick and Meier 1965:40-41).

At first friendly with Washington, Du Bois became alienated when Washington's emphasis on industrial education drew resources away from liberal arts colleges like Atlanta, and when the Tuskegeean's accommodating policies produced so little real gain for the race. Hints of dissent appeared in Du Bois' review of Washington's autobiography, Up From Slavery, in 1901. His 1903 book launched a full-scale attack. With the publication of this book, Du Bois took the leadership role in the struggle against Washington's program.

What really caused the break of faith with Washington? It was not the brilliant insights of the intellectuals but rather the constant deterioration of the political situation. The primary reason why Booker T. Washington lost influence in neo-abolitionist circles was the ever-increasing horror of the Jim Crow system. Du Bois, as others, found his people being lynched in the South and ghettoized in the North. As always, events ran ahead of the ability of liberal intellectuals to foresee them. After events become so drastically out of sync with the old paradigm, the liberal intellectuals finally respond because they need a new liberal political position to respond to the new events. Among the terrible happenings was the 1905 Brownsville Raid, in which black infantry soldiers were alleged to have shot up the town of Brownsville, Texas, killing a white bartender and wounding a police lieutenant. Roosevelt ordered the discharge en masse of 167 of the First Battalion's 170 soldiers without honor and with forfeiture of pension (Lewis 1994:275-276&331-332). The Brownsville Raid was followed by the Atlanta race riot of 1906. Du Bois had to rush to Atlanta by train to sit on the steps of South Hall to protect his wife, Nina, and his child, Yolande, with a shotgun. Soon after, Du Bois started his first journalistic attempt, The Moon, to overthrow the Washington system.

Founding of the NAACP

In June 1905 Du Bois and a rebellious group of blacks met on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls and drew up a platform for aggressive action. The group's name came from the location of the first meeting -- the Niagara Movement. The movement never gained a membership of more than 400, and it dissolved at the end of five years.

The immediate cause of the founding of the NAACP was the riot on the night of August 14, 1908 that devastated Springfield, Illinois, the town where the Great Emancipator lay entombed. It signaled that the race problem was no longer regional but national (Lewis 1994:387). Whites called a conference for Lincoln's birthday 1909. Some members of the Niagara Movement, most prominently Du Bois, threw in their lot with the biracial NAACP when it began to function in 1910. In that year Du Bois joined the organization's staff as director of research and editor of its magazine, The Crisis.

Legal action became the main tactic of the NAACP. In 1915 the NAACP won a Supreme Court suit that invalidated the "grandfather clause" which made it illegal for most Southern blacks to vote. The NAACP's tactic of educational persuasion was based on the premise that white Americans would treat blacks as equals once they overcame their own ignorance. This message was well-suited to the liberal philosophy of the founders (Morris 84:14).

Conservative and Liberal Blacks

Martial (1944:743) wrote that the two traditions of conservatism and liberalism, the same that have always existed among the whites, existed in the black community. The fight between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois established the dominant pattern of political thinking among blacks and whites in the South during the period of Jim Crow dominance. Groups of followers assembled behind these two men and their successors. These two political outlooks continued as dual systems, but it is important to note that neither fundamentally threatened the Southern white system of domination. In the South, the NAACP was always a relatively weak organization. In the Jim Crow era virtually the entire political spectrum in the South basically worked within and accommodated to the racist system.

You can bet that Martial never met Vernon Johns. Johns did not approve of either side of this debate and their associated ways of thinking. And in this sense he was a maverick and a rebel. His thoughts were beyond this debate and because he did he inspired those who eventually carried out the destruction of the Southern apartheid system, Martin Luther King Jr. being the foremost of these. Johns had distain for the conservatives for their accommodation to the system of segregation. But Johns also disliked the NAACP for pretty much the same reason. He felt they were not really fighting hard enough against the segregationist system. Their legal approach was too slow and too ineffective for Johns. He also did not like the NAACP because it was elitist, representing the interests and approaches of the black middle class. Vernon Johns was no gradualist. And therefore he was beyond the political spectrum as it existed in the white and black communities. That is why, as we shall see, he was largely ignored both by conservatives and liberals.

Lynchburg

The James River flows on the northern side of the city of Lynchburg on its way to the Atlantic Ocean. Historically known as the "Hill City," Lynchburg is located on a number of hills that rise dramatically from the river valley. Their names are College Hill, Daniel's Hill, Diamond Hill, Federal Hill, Franklin Hill, Garland Hill and White Rock Hill.

Because of the many hills Lynchburg at times gives the appearance of being a smaller, poorer, inland version of San Francisco. The hill- and-valley appearance of the city make it much more interesting than cities of comparable size located on flat areas. Seen from the northern side of the river, the city appears quite impressive.

Lynchburg was named for its founder, John Lynch, the son of Charles Lynch. A fifteen-year old Irish runaway, Charles Lynch decided to learn a trade and apprenticed himself to a wealthy Quaker tobacco planter. The relationship went so well that the Roman Catholic Lynch married the planter's daughter. Their son John was an enterprising young man, who started a ferry service when he was seventeen across the James River in 1757. Dwellings were built on the navigable river near his ferry house. In 1786, the Virginia General Assembly granted him a charter for a town. Lynchburg was incorporated as a town in 1805. The Quaker John Lynch also built the city's first bridge, replacing his own ferry in 1812.

Tobacco was early the economic stimulus of this largely Quaker community. (Although the Quakers were the first religious group to settle Lynchburg and strongly influenced its history, their opposition to slavery caused them to migrate to Ohio and Indiana.) The first warehouse on the south bank was built in 1791, and four more warehouses were added between 1800 and 1805.

Lynchburg attracted industrial magnates who dealt in tobacco and iron, the chief products of its early years. Their ornate, luxurious homes, bordered by enormous decorative wrought iron fences, are worth a visit. Three of them have been made into sumptuous bed and breakfast places, Madison House, the Mansion and Langhorne Manor.

The James River and Kanawha Canal reached Lynchburg from Richmond in 1840. In 1852, when the population was more than 8,000, Lynchburg received its city charter, and that year the first train steamed in. During the Civil War the city was an important Confederate supply base, with hospitals and an arsenal.

In June 1864 General Grant ordered General David Hunter to destroy the Central Railroad and the canal on the James River starting at Lynchburg. Coming down, Hunter burned V.M.I (Virginia Military Institute). Lee in Petersburg sent General Jubal Early to defend Lynchburg. General Breckenridge arrived on the sixteenth of June. Imboden with his cavalry remnant also arrived, followed by McCausland and Early. Early saved Lynchburg when he ran empty railroad cars up and down the tracks to convince the Yankees that Confederate reinforcements were arriving for a major battle. The Union forces retreated and Lynchburg was saved from destruction.

Lynchburg is steeped in Civil War history. Monument Terrace, in the center of downtown, honors the heroes of all wars. The statue of a Southern infantryman, designed by James O. Scott and erected in 1898, stands at the top of Monument Terrace. At Riverside Park at 2240 Rivermont Avenue is a fragment of the hull of the canalboat Marshall, which transported the body of Stonewall Jackson from Lynchburg to Lexington for burial in 1863. And, of course, just twenty minutes east of Lynchburg is the Appomattox Court House National Historical Park.

Today Lynchburg is somewhat infamous because of its right-wing fundamentalist in residence, the Reverend Jerry Falwell of the Thomas Roads Baptist Church. Also here is Falwell's Liberty University. Now known as the "City of Churches," Lynchburg (population 70,000) has 129 other houses of worship in addition to the church that launched the movement known as the Moral Majority.

Virginia Seminary

The black Virginia Theological Seminary and College is located in the southwest part of town at the northwest corner of Garfield Avenue and Dewitt Street. This Baptist institution occupying several gaunt brick buildings, was incorporated in 1888 to prepare Christian preachers and teachers for work among blacks.

When the senior author first saw the campus of Virginia Seminary he was quite shocked. There are now only three buildings on the campus plus an adjacent building that looks like an old motel. The buildings and grounds are in need of paint touch-ups and have somewhat of a run-down appearance. Also interesting from the point of view of Johns having emphasized the importance of mountain tops in his sermons, the seminary is located on top of a hill. Heading north on route 29, Humbles Hall is readily visible and looks quite impressive.

Humbles Hall, Virginia Seminary

The story of the origin of Virginia Seminary is tied to the history of power struggles within the Baptist church. Many of the younger generation of black Baptists leaders who emerged in the 1880s grew restless with the leadership of the northern-based Home Mission Society and the American Baptist Publication Society. These so-called separatists wanted to break free from dependence on whites. Black cooperationists, however, said that they could not yet support their own schools or publication society. The debate led to the founding of several black agencies that came together to form the National Baptist Convention in 1895 (McPherson 1994:284). After two stormy decades in which the original distinction between separatists and cooperationists became blurred, the greatest cleavage within the National Baptist Convention occurred when the National Baptist Convention split into two hostile conventions with almost the same name (the seceding faction added "of America" to its title). The fight developed over the ownership and management of the National Baptist Publishing Board. Those who wanted the Publishing Board to be independent from the larger organization organized the National Baptist Convention of America (Fitts 1985:89-90&92-93).

The college was organized in 1886 by the Virginia Baptist State Convention and was the first post-Civil War college in the city. Two years later the cornerstone of the college's first building was laid, and the school became the Lynchburg Baptist Seminary. In 1890 the school opened with thirty-three students. Today, Virginia Seminary is but a shadow of its former self. But during its heyday, the school was the place for young blacks to go if they wanted to finish high school and attend college. The place offered blacks a rare opportunity to get an education. Until about 1920 the public schools in Lynchburg offered only three years of high school education to blacks, said Chauncey Spencer, who attended the school. Those who wanted to finish school went to the seminary. There they could stay on for another four years and earn a bachelor's degree.

Opened in 1890 by the Virginia Baptist State Convention, the college is coeducational and confers bachelor degrees in arts and sciences. The seminary confers the degree of bachelor of divinity. Enrollment in 1937-38 was 120. Of the 500 graduates, 150 were preachers and 25 were foreign missionaries.

Virginia Seminary's first president was Phillip F. Morris. Because of failing health, he resigned the position before the school was completed. In 1890, Gregory W. Hayes stepped in and began his sixteen year long tenure with the school. Hayes, a native of Virginia (Amelia County), was born September 8, 1862, the son of slaves. His family moved to Richmond when he was just a youngster. He was then sent to New Jersey and later to an aunt in New York. He served with the United States Navy for eight months. He also worked on a steamboat between New York and Boston. He then went to Oberlin College for seven years and was one of the first blacks to graduate from the school. Three of these years were spent doing preparatory work and the other four years he majored in classical studies. He was appointed class orator during his senior year. He graduated with an A.M. degree in 1888. He taught history and math at Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute in Petersburg until 1891. He was also the first president of the National Baptist Educational Convention of the United States (Reavis 1990:62).

Hayes served as the college's president until his death in 1906, when he was only forty-four years of age. His wife, Mary Rice Hayes, became president and stayed at the school another two years.

Statue of Gregory Hayes on the Virginia Seminary Campus

In the school's early days, Hayes frequently traveled throughout the East Coast to raise money for the college. Speeches before church congregations and other gatherings helped promote the Central Virginia school and broaden its student enrollment to include men and women from northeastern cities such as Washington D.C., New York, and Philadelphia. The first college students were admitted around 1901. Two students graduated from the college program in 1905. By 1915, the school's enrollment had grown to about 500. Under Hayes' guidance, the school added several building to its campus.

Reavis (1990:73-74) writes that Hayes had a philosophy of self-help and became one of the foremost black leaders at the dawn of the twentieth century. But he did not come by this leadership position the easy way. He had to fight a number of political battles. The biggest became known as the Battle of Lexington (for the town Lexington, Virginia where the convention was held). In 1899 the thirty-second annual meeting of the Virginia Baptist State Convention met. In the meeting, a battle started between those seeking self-help (free from the interference of whites) and the cooperationists who wished to continue to cooperate with whites. The cooperationists were defeated in their efforts to maintain Virginia Seminary's affiliation with the American Baptist Home Mission Society.

Defeated, the cooperationists were so upset that they founded the General Association of Virginia (Colored). In 1946 it was renamed the Baptist Allied Bodies of Virginia and in 1967 the Baptist General Convention of Virginia (Reavis 1990:118). The Battle created a schism in the family of the black Baptists that has remained to this time. The legacy of the cooperationists manifested itself through their support of Virginia Union University in Richmond and cooperative ventures with the Southern Baptist Convention and the white General Association of Virginia, while the Virginia Baptist State Convention supports Virginia Seminary. The Virginia Baptist State Convention still remains somewhat aloof as regards involvement with their white brethren. Racial pride, and the principle of self-help and self-sufficiency remain an integral part of the legacy of Hayes and his supporters, particularly at Virginia Seminary (Reavis 1990:125).

The Seminary often had trouble with its white supporters. The white Baptist Convention gave the school one thousand dollars a year. But they required that the Tuskegee system be followed -- one in which students were taught trades, sewing, and so on. Periodically the financial supporters, such as the white National Baptist Convention, sent representatives to inspect the school to determine what was going on. The black administrators usually showed them exactly what they wanted to see, but as soon as they left, the school would resume the teaching of Latin and literature (Greene 1977:27).

Many whites believed that blacks did not need a liberal education or instruction in the arts and sciences, but instead needed to be taught marketable skills in the industrial trades. But blacks would teach liberal education on the sly. On one occasion the seminary was "caught" teaching its students liberal arts. The head of the National Baptist Convention made a visit to the school, and found that they were teaching Greek and other subjects. He made a speech in the chapel to faculty and students on one of his visits and said that blacks had not arrived at the time when they needed to be taught Greek and Latin. He took away the one thousand dollars the Seminary was receiving from the National Baptist Convention. The thousand dollars went directly to Dr. Hayes because the seminary had no other money to pay him. Dr. Hayes refused to give in. He refused to stop teaching academic subjects. He gave up the money (Greene 1977:28).

Dr. J. R. L. Diggs replaced Mary Rice Hayes and served from 1909 to 1910. Rev. R. C. Woods took over the administration of the school in 1910, serving until 1926 when Rev. William Henry Roland Powell (known as W. H. R. Powell) replaced him.

Vernon Johns at Virginia Seminary

Vernon Johns used his natural abilities and self-education along with his gumption to talk his way into several schools. He talked his way into the Virginia Seminary at Lynchburg. Vernon Johns liked the idea of Virginia Seminary because, compared to Virginia Union, it preached a philosophy of independence from the white man. But Johns was not a separatist. He wanted blacks to be independent from whites in the sense that they would have their own base of power from which they could dissent from the separatist system and eventually overthrow it. He did not want a separatist voice and power structure. He was a fighter against racism, and he wanted power so he could fight racism.

Taylor Branch (1988:8) correctly says that Johns was tossed out of the school for rebelliousness. Who's Who states that he graduated from the Virginia Theological Seminary and College in Lynchburg in 1915 at around the age of twenty-three. (We have since learned not to trust the Who's Who. We do not know for sure but someone, possibly Vernon Johns, probably put the best face on his Who's Who information.)

The Seminary reached its peak during Woods's administration. Three new buildings were erected, the School of Religion was upgraded to a Theological Seminary, the school was accredited as a college, and the name was changed to Virginia Theological Seminary and College.

A 1914 visit for a study done for Negro Education (Jones 1969: 618-619) found that the school was comprised of elementary and secondary grades. The criticism of the school, at that time under the presidency of Robert C. Woods, was that the curriculum spent too much time on language. The academic classes required three years of Latin and three years of Greek, as well as one of German.

Chauncey Spencer reported the school was at its peak between 1915 and 1930. The school's football, baseball and basketball teams played against colleges such as Hampton University and Howard University. Tuition for day students was $20 a semester. Students who lived in dormitories paid $80. The teachers of Virginia Seminary were often educated in the North, but could not get academic jobs there. The teachers were given room and board and twenty-five or thirty dollars (top pay) per month (Greene 1977:28). One Friday each month, rhetorical exercises were held that allowed students to sing, dance, and debate in front of their fellow classmates. The monthly get-togethers provided training for future ministers, many of whom are still preaching (Tales 1985:206-207).

Anne Spencer

Anne Spencer was an African American poet of Irish, Negro, and Seminole Indian blood born in February 1882, in Henry County, Virginia. Her early years were spent in Bramwell, West Virginia. In September 1893, at the age of eleven Anne went to Lynchburg, Virginia, where she attended Virginia Theological Seminary and College. Conditions at the Seminary were terrible. One of the worst problems was inadequate food service. In her first year at the school she contracted malaria as a result of malnutrition. In addition, there was no plumbing or central heating at the Seminary. Although her situation disturbed her mother, she sent Anne back in the fall and tried to supplement the school's diet with care packages (Greene 1977:25).

Anne Spencer was a good student in the humanities and a poor one in the sciences. Her natural abilities caught the attention of Dr. Gregory W. Hayes, who was president of the seminary during the entire time Anne was there. He even made her his assistant Sunday school teacher. Furthermore, he frequently asked her to take charge of his classes when he had to be away. Anne became a good friend of Mary Rice, who eventually married Dr. Hayes. To help improve her grades in the sciences, Anne recruited a young man at the seminary, Edward Spencer. He was six years older than she. But by sharing homework, the two became close friends. But the clincher of the relationship was his acts of kindness. School tradition held that a young man should draw water from the school well for his special girl. Edward would stay by the well and draw water for girls without a boyfriend (Greene 1977: 26&29).

At Virginia Seminary Anne (Greene 1977:33-35) completed high school in 1899. She was pleased with the education she received there. In the spring of 1899 Annie, at seventeen, and Edward Spencer, at twenty-three, were preparing for graduation. Neither the valedictorian nor salutatorian were good at speeches, so Annie was asked to deliver a speech. She delivered it in Lexington, a town not far from Lynchburg on May 8, 1899. where Virginia Seminary held its graduation exercises. She received quite a bit of praise for this speech.

After graduation she became a teacher in West Virginia, in the communities of Maybeury and Elkhorn. She married Edward in May 1901 in Bramwell, West Virginia. They set up household in Lynchburg at 1804 Holiday Street, the street where Edward's parents had lived for many years. Two young girls were born there, Bethel and Alroy.

In 1903 Edward had their home built at 1313 Pierce Street. A boy, Chauncey Edward, was born there November 5, 1906. This area was in the Camp Davis area where confederate soldiers had enlisted. Chauncey (1975:15) wrote that it was the first private housing development, one that became known as Spencer Place. "Here, in as many as fourteen houses at one time lived most of my relatives." In 1867 Anne's great great grandfather had purchased the land and the Spencers all moved up here. It was like a family compound although they did not call it that then. The family had a store on the corner in 1867 and 1868. Showing great perception and sensitivity to her needs, Edward Spencer later constructed the small house "EdanKraal," located in back of the main house, as a place where Anne could write. Edankrall translates to "Ed and Anne's place."

The Anne Spencer home.

She had a rose garden in the back on a long narrow piece of land (Greene 1977:45). There was a three car garage that is scheduled to be restored and used as a meeting place for visitors. The Spencer garden became a noted sight in Lynchburg for its collection of varied plants and flowers, and for its well-tended form. In the garden there is a fish pond with an African head she received from W. E. B. Du Bois.

For a short time probably about 1911 or 1912 she taught at Virginia Seminary (Greene 1977:46). In 1914, forty years before Rosa Parks ignited the civil rights movement from her seat on an Alabama bus, Mrs. Spencer was vigorously protesting the segregated seating on Lynchburg trolleys. "Once, she went down and had it out with an official of the traction company," Chauncey Spencer (Tales 1985:136) said. "Most of the time, though, she would use any form of conveyance to get across town rather than take the streetcar. I can remember her hitching a ride on an ice wagon, but mostly she walked."

Chauncey Spencer said there were two people that his mother could not stand: President Gandy of Virginia State University and the peanut scientist from Tuskegee, George Washington Carver. Anne involved herself in the women's struggle when she was sixteen or seventeen years old. Once at her home, Gandy made the statement a woman's place was in the kitchen. Anne Spencer shouted at him and invited him out of the house. Carver had the same philosophy. My father was going to the kitchen to get a refill on his coffee. Carver asked for a refill. My mother said "Get off of that seat and get your own coffee." She snapped ‘You know about the peanut and the potato, but you don't know anything about life. What you need is to be married a few times. That would take the whine out of your voice" (Tales 1985:136). Mother also said to him "No wonder you never married, you don't know enough to pour pee out of a boot. Get out of here." When the politician Carter Glass once paid a visit to the Spencer home at 1313 Pierce, Anne refused to see him. (The two later came to share mutual respect.)

About 1917-1918 several blacks in Lynchburg began to organize committees in order to help their race socially, economically, and legally. Anne belonged to a human relations committee which, in its desire for more positive and more immediate results in alleviating the racial tension in Lynchburg, proposed affiliation with the NAACP by establishing a local chapter in Lynchburg.

By 1919 there were more southern than northern members of the NAACP, 42.6 to 38.4 thousand respectively (Morris 84:14). Out of necessity, the NAACP in the South was closely tied to the black church. Indeed, it was largely financed through the church. It was often the only place they could meet. Many local NAACP leaders were ministers. They never had a mass base, only attracting a membership of about 2 percent of the blacks. The legal strategy was too technical. The NAACP, however, was the dominant black protest organization for the first half of the twentieth century. The Norfolk Journal and Guide (April 2, 1921:1) carried an article about the NAACP membership drive. The organization announced that its country-wide drive for a quarter of a million members was well under way and that twenty-seven states and sixty-three cities were already represented. Among the Southern states in which the drive is being actively carried forward are Alabama, Louisiana, Kentucky, Florida, and Virginia and South Carolina.

The NAACP agreed to send an official from its main office to Lynchburg in 1918 (Greene 1977:48-49). But there was a problem -- where to house him. Since no one offered, Mrs. Spencer volunteered. The man who came to call in 1919 was none other than James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938). At the time he was busy traveling around the country investigating lynchings and organizing chapters of the NAACP.

In 1917 James Weldon Johnson began his field work which led to the organization of the Dixie District, which added thirteen branches and 738 members to the NAACP. From 1920 to 1930 Johnson was one of the most effective champions of equal rights for blacks. In New York City on July 28, 1917 Johnson organized the famous silent march protest against lynching. In 1919 he implemented in Atlanta a successful voting campaign. In the 1930s this campaign was resumed by Austin T. Walden, Mrs. John Hope, and Rayford W. Logan.

Chauncey said the Lynchburg NAACP was started right there in the Spencer home. Du Bois and Johnson were involved in the discussions. The Spencers and Johnson became immediate friends and he was ever after a frequent guest at the Spencer House. At the first visit Johnson "discovered" her (Greene 1977:50). He sent a piece of her poetry to the Baltimore satirist, H. L. Mencken, who told Johnson "Tell that woman to put beginnings and ends to her poems; I can't make heads or tails of them -- but they're good." This poem "Before the Feast at Shushan" was published in the February 1920 issue of Crisis. Anne Spencer is the only Virginian whose works are included in the Norton Anthology of Modern American and British Poetry.

During both her school days and her career as a teacher, she scribbled verse, but, as she confessed, "I never thought that folks would call it poetry." Johnson used five of her poems in his anthology, Book of American Negro Poetry. Few poets have been praised so highly and have published so little as Anne Spencer. "Why, anyone can write a dull poem," she explains, "but not everyone can grow my flowers." (WPA 1994:313)

For many black leaders of the 1920s and '30s, men like W.E. B. Dubois and James Weldon Johnson, the Spencer home served as an oasis on the railroad line between Washington and Atlanta. Even H. L. Mencken paid Anne a visit. Chauncey said the white officials didn't like it, but what could they do? He said city officials threw up their hands exclaiming "We can't do nothin' with 'em." The Spencers were one of the few black families in Lynchburg at that time to have central heating and indoor bathroom facilities (through Edward's inventive industry).

There were many other visitors as well. From the world of Fine Arts Paul Robeson, Roland Hayes, Marion Anderson paused for a cup of tea and stimulating conversation. Also here were Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Leslie Pinckney Hill, Margaret Walker, Clarence Muse and many others. In addition, visitors such as Thurgood Marshall, Walter White, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jackie Robinson, and Mary McCloud Bethune came to visit. Other visitors included Walter White, Clarence Muse, Dean Pickens. Du Bois visited numerous times. The Spencers became so famous locally that even whites sought their company and asked to be introduced to some of the important people visiting at the house. (Greene 1977: 68&71-73).

Sterling Brown, who had distinguished himself as one of the foremost black American poets, editors and critics, was a teacher at Virginia Theological Seminary and College from 1923 to 1926. While living in Lynchburg he made the acquaintance of the Spencers. (Greene 1977:73)

Spencer was a social heretic. According to Greene, "Anne Spencer was a fashion setter of a sort, and sported 'indecent fashions' long before they became popular. Chauncey (Tales 1985:136) remembers that his mother once created quite a commotion among the black ladies in her community with her 'outrageous, indecent and scandalous attire'; she wore a pants suit to a community picnic."

In his own way, Anne's husband Edward also rebelled against the mores of a small southern city. As Lynchburg's first parcel postman, he insisted upon delivering packages to the front door of white residences. When one customer complained, Greene wrote, "Edward Spencer proved just as defiant of Jim Crow as his wife, and stated that he was not a backdoor postman. The Lynchburg postal department . . . supported him."

Anne Spencer (Greene 1977:91-92) was filled with contempt for Lynchburg, for Virginia, and for the South in general. She sometimes referred to her home as "Lynchville" or "Lynch-burg." She was already infamous in Lynchburg for helping to start the local chapter of the NAACP. But what brought her more readily to the attention of whites in Lynchburg was the movement she initiated to oust white teachers from the local black high school. The student body of Jackson High School was black, but a large number of the faculty members were white, whereas black teachers went unemployed. Anne began writing letters to the local paper and to those persons who had direct influence over the school's operation, stating that the situation should be changed, that, since it was a Jim Crow school anyway, the white teachers should be removed and black teachers hired.

She organized a forceful letter writing campaign within the black community to bombard the paper and public offices concerned with education with letters supporting this action (Greene 1977:87-88). The movement was successful, for the school year 1919-1920 black teachers replaced white teachers in Jackson High School, though the white principal remained in charge.

Despite her work as a civil rights activist in Lynchburg, Anne Spencer made few references to race or racism in her poetry (Wall 1995:16-18). Gardens, by comparison, were a frequent setting and metaphor. (Along with her civil rights activism, the garden she cultivated was the chief source of her local fame.) She desired to invent another world in poetry. In most of her poems, her speakers and subjects find at least momentary release from the real world of ugliness, impurity, and hate. In an autobiographical statement composed for Cullen's anthology, Caroling Dusk, Spencer proposed this artistic credo: "I write about the things I love. But have not civilized articulation for the things I hate. I proudly love being a Negro woman -- it's so involved and interesting. We are the problem -- the great national game of TABOO."

As a poet, Mrs. Spencer was sometimes compared with Emily Dickinson. Both shunned publicity and craved solitude -- Emily Dickinson retreating into her New England home, Anne Spencer to her Pierce Street garden -- and both transcended their narrow scope with soaring themes that touched all of humanity.

Most of her poems were about nature (Tales 1985:135). "But she could raise hell. Yes, indeed." added Chauncey. She was said to be ornery. She was feisty to the end. Her son is also like that.

Within a few years of its founding, the local Lynchburg NAACP chapter lost some of its effectiveness in the community and the national headquarters became worried. The head office, in its attempt to rejuvenate the Lynchburg branch, called on Anne Spencer to get things started again. The director of branches for the organization wrote her in 1926 and said that since the local branch was dormant for sometime they would be grateful if she would consult with James Weldon Johnson and reorganize the branch. Mrs. Spencer (Greene 1977:91) said she did what she could to revive the organization in Lynchburg.

In 1930, frustrated and angry with local blacks, she wrote to Johnson (Greene 1977:93): "My forty-eighth birthday finds me galvanized into an obsession that has been a long time flowing in: A vile indignation for and against Niggers! I love and hate' em; dreaming, waking, it's all one -- my Phantom 'Rickshaw.'"

"For her outspoken provocation Anne Spencer was subjected to ostracism, personal derision, racial slurs, and generally hostile attitudes during most of her adult life in Lynchburg. Yet she endured with strength, courage, and determination. For over four decades she was certainly one of Lynchburg's most vocal and active social heretics" (Greene 1977:98).

When he was fourteen Chauncey Spencer traveled to New York City to visit his two sisters who were attending Hunter College. He ran into incidents of Jim Crow at the restaurants which refused to serve coloreds. His sisters were not there to meet him at the train station and so he asked someone at the information desk where he could get a sandwich. I was directed across the street from Pennsylvania Station.

He crossed the street to "Child's Restaurant" but found that he had waited fifteen minutes without being served although others who came in after him already had been served (Spencer 1975:22-23). When he asked when his order would be taken he was informed "We don't serve your people in here." He put up a verbal fight, but when threatened with physical harm he had to retreat. As he was walking out, the manager shoved him through the door knocking his suitcase into the street. He went to a second restaurant but was quickly told "No coloreds, here."

Receiving this type of discriminatory experience, it is no wonder that, upon hearing Marcus Garvey speak, Chauncey felt sympathetic and responded to Garvey's talk of black pride and black heroes, although Chauncey certainly never became a black separatist.

Looking for a job, in December 1923 Anne Spencer put on her best red dress and trudged two miles from her home to the Jones Memorial Library. Under her arm, she carried James Weldon Johnson's The Book of Negro Poetry, which contained five of her poems. As a privately owned library in the reign of Jim Crow, Jones Memorial could not hire her. But as a tribute to her persuasiveness and ability, the trustees decided to open a branch of the library at the all-black Dunbar High School and place Mrs. Spencer in charge. There, she influenced the lives of hundreds of students (Tales 1985:136).

She was the librarian at the school for over twenty years. Dunbar High School was one of the first black high schools in Lynchburg and stood on 12th and Polk Streets. Carolyn Brown (Tales 1985: 208) attended the school for four years, graduating in 1944 and talked about life under segregation. The white children who rode the bus to E.C. Glass would "make little remarks, throw things at you sometimes. It didn't phase me because I just ignored it," she recalled. Black, and later white, students walked through its halls from 1922-1970 and the building, named after black poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, was demolished in 1979 because it was too costly to renovate the dilapidated building.

The paper (J&G July 3, 1926:9) carried a notice of the new library. The Dunbar Branch, Jones Memorial Library had closed for the summer and would not be open until September 1. There were about 2,500 books of all classes and complete reference books, magazines, and newspapers, in the library when it closed, says Mrs. Spencer, chief librarian. This is the second year of the library, and it has shown great progress during this time.

Anne Spencer became friends with Langston Hughes in the mid-1920s. In 1928 Langston Hughes (Rampersad 1986:158) was in a down mood. He wrote Claude McKay that he no longer read his poetry to ladies clubs, the Y.W.C.A. and the leading literary societies as he had done for two winters. He had begun to hate his own poetry. He referred to his talks before school children as being exhibited "like a prized dog." He began to pick and chose his engagements carefully. On February 3, 1928, he performed without fee in Lynchburg, Virginia, drawn by the somewhat reclusive poet Anne Spencer, whose lyrical piece "Lady, Lady" had appeared in Locke's The New Negro. Hughes stayed with Spencer and her husband at her Pierce Street home, walked in her beautiful garden where she spent much of the day, and breakfasted on waffles and honey and Virginia ham. From Lynchburg he went to Manhattan.

On January 19, 1928, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote Mrs. Spingarn a letter in which he mentioned Anne Spencer. He wrote that "She has not written much but what she has done is very beautiful. I wrote her recently for something to publish in The Crisis. " Mrs. Spencer promised to send him something.

"When my mother had some poems published in Norton's Anthology," Chauncey Spencer (Tales 1985:137) recalled, "people in Lynchburg were saying ‘Who's Anne Spencer?' But in New York and Washington, they already knew." Chauncey remembers his mother writing poetry on envelopes and the backs of checks. "She even used to wake up in the middle of the night and write on the wall of her bedroom," he said. "Finally, my father complained so much that she had her granddaughter paint a picture to place over the writing."

In high school Chauncey Spencer (1975:18) put up his own struggle for equal rights. Miss Ora was one of the first black high school teachers and she raised racial resentments with her frequent references to giving the troublesome black kids to the white folks to be punished. Interracial fights started to increase so the whites arranged for the white kids to get out of class fifteen minutes early.

Chauncey protested this arrangement. "I just got up and walked out of school. I told them we had been passing each other for years and nobody had any conflict." They suspended him and told him to go to Saturday school, but he refused. His mother went down to talk to the school authorities. Chauncey remembers that Edmund C. Glass, superintendent of schools and brother of Carter Glass, retracted immediately. He said "Well, 'Chance- ey' we decided to cancel that order." His mother replied "What do you mean ‘we'? I came down here to get that order canceled." This was 1925. Vernon Johns was not involved in the incident but afterwards Johns told Chauncey's mother "Miss Anne, I'm so glad that it turned out all right" and then they discussed it.

Chauncey remarked that he refused to go back to Dunbar High School. He finished his last year at Virginia Seminary. Chauncey then attended four more years at Virginia Seminary and received a degree in sociology. In June 1927 he impulsively married his high school sweetheart Elvira Jackson.

Vernon Johns and Anne Spencer

Chauncey Spencer does not remember exactly when Anne Spencer met Vernon Johns. It is possible that she met him when Johns was at Virginia Seminary. According to Chauncey, they were close friends and he would frequently visit the home. "Knowing Vernon Johns he invited himself over to the house. Later on he was interested in my sister Alroy Sarah Spencer." He said that Johns wanted to marry his sister, but she ended up marrying a judge from New York. He added that "Vernon Johns would talk to my mother for hours. You could always tell when Vernon Johns had been here because the bathroom rug was all messed up. Vernon Johns was not the world's tidiest individual."

Given the type of person Anne Spencer was, it is no wonder that she and Johns came together. Chauncey said that "My parents discussed everything with Vernon Johns."

Chauncey Spencer in an interview said "anytime Vernon Johns talked he was giving a speech." He also mentioned that he "took Vernon's car for a quick joy ride." He believed that at DeWitt and Campbell Avenues Vernon Johns had a grocery store. You could almost call it a general store. He sold silk stockings and groceries.

"Vernon was always challenging Lynchburg with its segregation. Telling them not to ride the trolley cars. He was trying to get people to do things. That was one of the things he made a name for himself with civil rights. He called the chief a bastard. He advocated boycotting the merchants in the stores. . . .He was very interested in not riding the trolley. He couldn't be effective since they had no automobiles at that time. It would be different when people used cars."

"He had no sympathy for fear. He would say ‘Hey, take that shoe shine box. Throw it in the woods and go and start your own business.' He was always doing that. That's an example. Forget those people, say what you want and scare them to death. . . . Don't be afraid! Stand up straight!"

 

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