When most people think of black history, they tend to think big — Chicago, Detroit, and Harlem’s streets. Or maybe they focus on some of the civil rights struggle flashpoints, like Selma or Montgomery or Neshoba County, MS, where three civil rights workers were killed. Hardly anyone ever thinks of Lynchburg, VA.
But they should. If you were to take a stroll along the 1300 block and 1400 blocks of Pierce Street in that small southern city, you would encounter eight state historical markers, a density of homage unparalleled in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
This might be considered odd since no historic marches were held there, no iconic speeches, no protestors hauled away in police wagons. The Rev. Martin Luther King once came there, but only to pay his respects to Pierce Street matriarch Anne Spencer, not to lead a demonstration.
Pierce Street’s mystique stems not from what happened there, but from who lived and visited there. The list of visitors includes:
Iconic black writer and activist W.E.B. DuBois. James Weldon Johnson, the first executive secretary of the NAACP. Walter White, Johnson’s successor. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Poet Langston Hughes. Singers Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson. Agricultural pioneer George Washington Carver. Longtime congressman Adam Clayton Powell, who spent the first night of his honeymoon there. World-class tennis players Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson. Sen. Carter Glass, co-founder of the Federal Reserve System. Influential journalist H.L. Mencken. Boxer Joe Louis. Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Lionel Hampton. Duke Ellington. Maya Angelou. And, not least, the Rev. King.
All part of the rich life story of an out-of-the-way street in an out-of-the-way city.
Of course, the history of black Americans is rich in many ways, which is why it is being celebrated nationwide this month. However, when you think about it, much of what is remembered has to do with the conflict between black America and white America. If there were no white Americans to oppose them, King might have remained behind his pulpit, Rosa Parks could have kept her seat on that Montgomery bus, and Jackie Robinson would have made it to baseball’s major leagues a few years earlier.
Some of those who lived in the 1300 and 1400 blocks of Pierce Street did make their mark within the context of that struggle. Simultaneously, though, they accomplished what they did not to make a racial statement, but simply because they were following the path that drew them. White people were, in many ways, irrelevant to that.
Had W.E.B. Dubois not needed to take a shower, the larger world may never have heard of Anne Spencer. A celebrated author and civil rights crusader, DuBois was a fastidious man who dressed to impress and always insisted on being called “Dr. DuBois.” Thus, he was horrified when he came to Virginia Seminary (a black college in Lynchburg) on a speaking engagement, asked to use a shower, and was presented with a half-full washtub.
This was unacceptable.
According to J. Lee Greene, Anne’s first biographer, DuBois heard that hot running water might be available at 1313 Pierce and simply knocked on Anne and Edward Spencer’s front door asking to use it. It must have been like finding Oprah Winfrey on the doorstep would be today.
Anne Spencer was already a prolific poet, but only within the confines of her home. When she wasn’t tending her sprawling backyard garden or serving as the librarian at the black high school, she not only filled sheets of paper with verse but wrote some on the walls. DuBois saw it, liked it, and passed the word to James Weldon Johnson, also a poet. Johnson paid the Spencers a visit and was charmed, not only by Anne’s work, but by the couple’s worldliness and hospitality.
At the beginning of the 20th century, a black female writer in an obscure town had almost no way of being noticed. Thanks to DuBois’ need for personal hygiene and Johnson’s interest, however, Anne Spencer became the only Virginian to be published in the prestigious Norton Anthology of American Poetry. Today, she would probably have a blog rather than the hundreds of letters she wrote to other Harlem Renaissance writers, civil rights leaders, and Harry Truman before and after he became President.
Her son Chauncey was a rebel, kicked out of Dunbar High School after a spat with a teacher. Which was fine with him — all he really wanted to do was learn to fly an airplane. That proved impossible in Lynchburg because of racial restrictions at the local airport, so he moved to Chicago to get his flight instruction. Like his mother, Chauncey was very much in touch with what was happening globally, and it bothered him that blacks were not given equal rights in the armed forces. In 1936, he and Dale White flew a biplane (rented from a notorious Chicago gambler) from Chicago to Washington, D.C., surviving two crash landings in farmers’ fields along the way. A chance encounter with then-Congressman Truman on the streets of Washington led to a meeting with other Congress members that convinced them to include blacks in the Civilian Pilot Training Program. Spencer later worked to encourage fair treatment of African American air cadets at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama during World War II. He was a crucial figure in the formation of the famed Tuskegee Airmen. He eventually served as police commissioner for San Bernadino, CA and city administrator in Highland Park, MI.
Robert Walter Johnson was also a hellraiser in his youth, expelled from two colleges before finding a home at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. He became a football hero as a running back, once scoring eight touchdowns in a game with Morgan State — all while refusing to wear a helmet.
After graduating from Meharry Medical College in Tennessee, Johnson moved to Lynchburg because he heard that the city’s only black doctor had died. He became the only lifeline to medical care for Lynchburg’s black population, even though segregation prevented him from practicing at the local hospital. Still restless and athletic, he took up tennis as an outlet for his energy and had a clay court built next to his house in the 1400 block of Pierce Street. Soon he was welcoming young tennis players — both black and white — to spend summer at his house, receiving tennis instruction in return for doing household chores. Two of those proteges were Arthur Ashe from Richmond and Althea Gibson from New York City, both of whom went on to win the U.S. Open and Wimbledon titles. A few years ago, Johnson was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Like Anne Spencer, Johnson also had a knack for connecting with famous people. Over the years, several professional athletes like Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Joe Louis found their way to Pierce Street, along with a few prominent jazz musicians. In the process, Johnson’s house became known for its elaborate party room in the basement.
A previous owner of that house (pre-party room) was Frank Trigg, who was born into slavery and overcame the loss of an arm in a farming accident as a youth to eventually serve as the President of three small colleges.
Clarence W. Seay, who lived in the 1300 block of Pierce, spent three decades as the principal of Dunbar High School, turning it into one of the leading black secondary schools in America. During the summers, he drove up and down the East Coast looking for potential teachers who might fit his educational vision.
Amaza Meredith, who grew up next door to the Spencers, faced a hurdle similar to that of Chauncey Spencer– no Virginia college was willing to teach architecture to a black woman. She relocated to New York City, graduated with honors from Columbia University, designed an upscale residential development at Sag Harbor, NY, and started the art program at Virginia State University.
Nor is Pierce Street’s history a dead history. Chauncey Spencer’s daughter, Shaun Spencer Hester, moved back to her grandmother’s house in the 1990s and restored it, even as a coalition of Lynchburg garden clubs coaxed the garden back into a showpiece and a tourist attraction. She also started a Harlem Renaissance Festival that takes place on Pierce Street each summer.
Meanwhile, Dr. Johnson’s children and grandchildren, many of whom also became successful, rebuilt the clay-court where Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson learned the skills that made them internationally famous.
Call it black history, for sure. Or maybe just American history.