Anne Spencer Image courtesy of Shaun Spencer Hester
A 40-year effort by U.Va. to acquire the papers of Harlem Renaissance poet Anne Spencer finally met with success in June. With her family’s blessing, the late poet’s literary life on paper was boxed up at her home in Lynchburg, Va., and delivered to the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.
Considered one of the most important voices of the Harlem Renaissance literary period, Spencer was the first black woman and first Virginian to have her work included in the Norton Anthology of American Poetry. U.Va. began courting her in 1968, but the poet was not interested in having the institution procure her papers while she was still alive.
While she wrote that protest “forced into poetry is a sad state,” the poet dealt with racism metaphorically in her poetry as well as politically. Active in the NAACP, Spencer helped establish the Lynchburg, Va., chapter of the organization in 1918. Not surprisingly, the segregation policies in place at the University during her lifetime led to strong resistance on her part at having the institution house her work.
After Spencer’s death in 1975, the University tried again to acquire her papers, but to no avail. According to Edward Gaynor, associate director of Special Collections, “the most recent contact began in 2004 and [the acquisition] took almost five years to cultivate and finalize.”
The acquisition was made possible by a private fund set aside for rare gifts. U.Va. faced fierce competition from the Library of Congress, Duke, Emory and other institutions.
Nearly 70 boxes were carted away from Spencer’s preserved home at 1313 Pierce St.
“She kept everything she wrote,” the widow of Anne Spencer’s son Chauncey, Ann Spencer, told the Lynchburg News & Advance. “Not because she thought it was all important, but because she just didn’t throw anything away. She used the back stairs of the house as her filing system, and after she died, we could hardly get up them.”
Now the complex process of cataloging begins. “Anne Spencer was one of those writers who would write on anything and everything—an envelope, a subscription card from a magazine,” Gaynor explains. At the moment, much of the archive rests in piles, and in no particular order. “It’s going to be a big job getting everything arranged and described correctly,” Gaynor says, but he expects that her papers will be processed and available for research next spring.
“U.Va. is thrilled to have the papers of a Virginian who was also a significant member of the African-American artistic community,” he adds. In a twist of poetic justice that Spencer might appreciate, her papers will form the core of a collection that the University is keen to expand.