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A Writer & Her Garden

 A granddaughter helps her grandmother’s legacy continue to flourish.

Written by Hayleigh Worgan   Photos courtesy of Anne Spencer House & Garden MuseumIn early 2008, Shaun Spencer Hester sat on her mother’s porch contemplating where her career would take her next. She caught sight of her grandmother’s home across the street, and an idea began to take shape. A historic landmark, the Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum (part of the Anne Spencer Memorial Foundation, Inc.), was maintained by Hester’s parents, but closed to the public. A historian, preservationist, and writer, Hester decided to reopen the museum in time for Virginia’s Annual Garden Day. 

When she stepped inside, she was struck by the feeling that she had stepped back in time. In that moment, she recalls, she knew that it was imperative to preserve as many of the original features of the home and garden as she could. With the windows clean and the floor swept, she opened the doors in time for spring that year. She became the museum’s curator, and introduced a new generation to the life and work of her grandmother, Anne Spencer. 

(photo: Anne Spencer in 1940)

Every inch of the Spencer property tells a story. In her time, Spencer used her garden as a sanctuary and gathering place, hosting intellectuals and African American travelers during years when our country was deeply segregated. Both inside the home and out in her community, she understood the value of planting seeds and helping them grow. An important figure in the literary and cultural movement of the 1920s and Harlem Renaissance, Spencer left quite a legacy. Her many accomplishments include being the second African American published in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (1973), assisting in the foundation of the Lynchburg chapter of the NAACP, and working as a librarian for the all-black Dunbar High School for twenty years. 

“The whole reason she wanted that job was because, at the time, there were no libraries in Lynchburg open to African Americans,” Hester says. “She thought, if she got the job, she would be able to allow access—not necessarily physical access—but she would be able to check out books for people in her community.”

Sources have described Spencer as a recluse because of the many hours she spent, day and night, working in her garden. Although she enjoyed her time alone, this accusation is unsubstantiated. Not only did she welcome people into her garden and home, she listened to their stories.

“For my grandmother,” Hester explains, “her garden was a place she could entertain visitors and guests. It was a way for her to connect to people, but it was also a place for her to get away from people, and she used it in both of those ways.”

The cottage in Spencer’s garden was built by her husband, Edward. There, she would escape to write poetry and prose that continues to be published in anthologies today. 

“It was a place to think and just be quiet. I think that is important for everyone, writer or not, and what better place to be than with nature?” Hester adds.

By preserving her grandmother’s home and gardens, Hester, the Anne Spencer Memorial Foundation’s Board of Directors, and the advisory board, are doing much more than providing another lovely stop on a garden tour. They are sharing part of the African American experience in American history.

“I tell people on these tours, when you think about my grandparents who met when they were young, in the 1800s, they were the first generation of their family to be freely educated just over 100 years ago. It’s really not that long ago. To see how we’ve grown, and understand the African American story over all of those periods of time is just starting to be told and of interest to all people. These stories aren’t written down in our history books, and if we don’t write them down they will all be lost. It’s now time for people to tell their story, whether it’s good or bad,” Hester says. 

Hester is currently working on a book detailing the history of her family, including the many ways they impacted the Civil Rights Movement and integration. Follow her on Instagram (@shaun.hester) for current information on the project. 

Visitation to the Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum slows down in October, but the garden is an unforgettable sight, even in the fall. From mid-October to March, Hester encourages those interested in a tour to book it two weeks in advance through the museum’s website. For more information visit www.annespencermuseum.com.

Hayleigh is a freelance writer, independent author, and writing consultant. In 2017, she published her first novel, The Huntsman: A modern retelling of Red Riding Hood. She spends a lot of time traveling and exploring new regions for inspiration, but Roanoke will always be her home. www.hayleighworgan.com.