The beauty and richness of our community would not be so without the efforts of the people who came before us. That’s why two upcoming festivals are helping to remind us of the unique culture and notable African American leaders who established the Roanoke and Lynchburg areas more than 100 years ago.
The Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum in Lynchburg and The Harrison Museum of African American Culture in Roanoke may be two of the best-kept secrets in our region. These two museums help transport us back in time and remember the flourishing African American culture that once abounded.
The Harrison Museum of African American Culture
For Roanoke, Henry Street was once the mecca of the black community. From the late 1800s to the early 1960s, Henry Street was the only place west of Richmond that had a concentration of African-American owned businesses and entertainment; it was a hub of arts and culture. Nightclubs, a record shop, pharmacy, hospital and theater all created the community feel that developed on Henry Street over a span of about 60 years. Originally, Henry Street was three city blocks, starting from Gilmer Avenue and the 1st Street Bridge and continuing toward the Gainsboro Library.
Because of the significance of Henry Street to the African American community, when organizers started planning the first Henry Street Heritage Festival 26 years ago as a fundraiser for The Harrison Museum of African American Culture, the name seemed appropriate. Executive Director Charles A. Price, Jr., explains, “I think it’s important for our heritage not to be lost. If you go back through history books in Virginia there’s just not a lot of information. I think festivals give folks an opportunity to experience that culture in a relaxed atmosphere. And it’s seeing people you haven’t seen in a long time and the fellowship of being together.”
Henry Street was in decline in the late 1960s when desegregation began and other establishments that were previously unlawful for the African American community to patronize were made available. Through desegregation the rationale of having an area like Henry Street solely for African American vendors went away. More opportunities were made available to the African American community and as a result the Henry Street community slowly disappeared.
Joyce Bolden is a volunteer with the Harrison Museum and is the Henry Street Heritage Festival coordinator and planning committee chairman. She was born and raised in Roanoke and describes desegregation and the deterioration of Henry Street as bittersweet.
“When we [African Americans] were segregated we knew our neighbors. We all relied on each other. Once desegregation took place, no one ever thought that as we were fighting for rights for integration that we would lose something. We lost something in the school system when they desegregated the school system, we lost a lot of African American owned businesses and a lot of the black neighborhoods went away. That’s part of the consequences of us fighting for our rights. We fought for our rights, but we did not fight for the continuation of black entrepreneurship or keeping our community together.”
The Henry Street Festival is meant to celebrate African American culture that has always been a part of Roanoke’s rich history and also serves as the main fundraiser for the Harrison Museum of African American Culture.
The museum, which is housed on the second floor of Center in the Square in downtown Roanoke, was established in 1985 and was previously located inside the Harrison School Building, which in the early part of the century offered classes for African American students only through the eighth grade. High school diplomas were unavailable to Roanoke’s black students, and by gradually introducing new coursework, an educator named Lucy Addison eventually created a full high-school curriculum. The State Board of Education recognized her efforts in 1924 by accrediting the Harrison School as a secondary school. The Harrison School Building is listed on both the National and State Registers of Historic Places.
In 2012, the museum relocated from the Harrison School Building to Center in the Square to increase visibility and diversity of visitors to the museum, and today offers a wide array of exhibits and artifacts, including hand-carved wooden sculptures from Africa with photos of the artisans who designed them. There is also an audio booth that is being used to collect oral histories from African American community members to help preserve significant events that took place in Roanoke and the region over the past hundred years.
“The museum is more or less an avenue to present the culture and historical elements of the African American community. Not just here in Roanoke, but showcasing AfThe Henry Street Heritage Festival and Pierce Street Harlem Renaissance Festival showcase heritage with a modern flavor. Photography by George Warner Charles A. Price Jr. Director of the Harrison Museum of African American Culture and Henry Street Festival Photo by George Warner 12 SEPTEMBER 2015 Photo by George Warner rican American leaders from all over the world. We try to present local information as well as national. All of this is to inspire people to see where we’ve been and to see where we can go,” says Price.
The Henry Street Festival is a celebration of culture and continues to grow every year. This year’s festival will be held in Elmwood Park on Sept. 19. As in previous years, the 26th Henry Street Heritage Festival promises to be a great community event presenting an array of diverse entertainment, educational forums, and exposure to African-American heritage as expressed through the performing arts, crafts, cuisines, customs, and merchandise.
When asked about what festivalgoers can expect this year, Price and Bolden say there will be great music showcasing genres of the 1960s and ’70s, plus R&B, jazz and modern hip hop of today. There will be many vendors and wares being sold, and of course soul food will be on the menu.
When asked to describe soul food, Price and Bolden both laugh. Price says, “It’s a process of tender loving care that is put into the food to make it have that special something and when you eat it, you know it’s not something that you can take just one bite of.”
And Bolden chimes in with a laugh, “It makes you want to smack your mama.”
East of Roanoke, the executive director and the board of directors at the Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum in Lynchburg also are preparing to offer a very special spread for the fifth annual Pierce Street Harlem Renaissance Festival on Pierce Street. Located on this historic block are several notable landmarks that tell a story of perseverance through life’s hard times and not just overcoming, but thriving in the face of adversity.
Anne Spencer was a poet, a civil rights activist, a teacher, librarian, wife and mother, and a gardener.
More than thirty of her po - ems were published in her lifetime, making her an important figure of the black literary and cultural movement of the 1920s — the Harlem Renaissance. James Weldon Johnson discovered her poetry in 1919, and she went on to participate in creative circles with Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, Thurgood Marshall, Zora Neal Hurston and the Rev. Martin Luther King.
She died in 1975 at age 93, but not before making her home a center in Lynchburg for subtle change. Today her home helps people who travel to see the museum understand the span of a civil rights movement from before the turn of the century to the mid-1970s.
Anne and Edward Spencer’s granddaughter Shaun Spencer-Hester is the executive director for the museum and says she feels very lucky to work so closely with her family history. “To me it’s more like living through history and being connected in some way, so when I read it in history books I relate it to my family and what were they going through during that time and how they were able to overcome the Jim Crow laws, women not being able to vote, the civil rights movement. And I think, how can that help me today?”
What makes the Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum stand out as a landmark of African American history is also the love story between Anne and Edward Spencer that is perfectly told through the beauty of their historic home and restored garden.
Both of Edward and Anne Spencer’s parents were born into slavery in Virginia and moved to Lynchburg after the Civil War. Edward and Anne met while attending Seminary, which is now known as the Virginia University of Lynchburg. Edward was a postman and Anne a writer and poet, and the Spencer family would go on to own real estate.
Amidst the troubled, segregated times in which they lived, Edward and Anne Spencer sought refuge in their home, which Edward built himself. While on his postal routes he would salvage used materials and restore them for their home. The home is built in a Victorian style and is filled with antiques of the time as well as the original wallpaper in some rooms.
The Spencers spent many days in their garden and in the cottage, Edankraal, which Edward built for Anne in the garden behind their home. The name Edankraal combines Edward and Anne and kraal, the Afrikaans word for enclosure or corral. Here she would lose herself in her flowers and creativity, and work on her writing into the wee hours of the morning.
One of the notable events that happened at the Anne Spencer House was that the Lynchburg chapter of the NAACP was established in their living room in 1918, and documents show that Edward served as the secretary. Because of Jim Crow Laws of the time, Anne and Edward Spencer also opened their home to many notable black leaders traveling through Lynchburg on official NAACP business.
The President of the board of directors for the Anne Spencer House is Judith Johnson, who before moving to Lynchburg ten years ago was the personal confidante and assistant to Coretta Scott King in Atlanta. With her background and knowledge of the civil rights movement, she is passionate that African American history is not lost and encourages people to continue to learn about their history no matter their race or nationality.
“My working in the civil rights movement, many people don’t know any more about it than Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, but there was a lot of blood shed, a lot of lives lost, there was a lot of struggle. It’s important for us to know our history and it’s important to know where you’re from. When it comes down to it, it’s good for you to know who you are. This history is not taught in school. There are things that I know that wouldn’t be in the history books, but you can come to the festival and talk with people and learn. We need to keep that spirit of learning; that education is so important.”
The Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum is just one of several historic homes on the 1300 Block of Pierce Street. Several other notable African American leaders lived on the block including Dr. R Walter Johnson, the first minority doctor awarded practice rights at Lynchburg General Hospital, and Chauncey Spencer, a member of the National Airmen’s Association, which would later become known as the Tuskegee Airmen. He made a historic flight from Chicago to Washington, D.C. to lobby Congress on behalf of African American fliers.
The reason for naming the festival The Pierce Street Harlem Renaissance is that the board hopes to create a renaissance of sorts for Pierce Street in Shaun Spencer-Hester and Judith Johnson Photo by Phillip Barrett SEPTEMBER 2015 15 Lynchburg, where people can rediscover the rich heritage and create a new movement of arts and culture. Johnson explains, “I think it’s important for the African American community to know that they’re important and they’re appreciated. People come from out of town all the way from Washington, D.C., to come to the festival. That’s important; it shows that we have support from one another. We have to lift each other up.”
The Pierce Street Harlem Renaissance Festival this year is going to feature the dedication of a new historical marker on Pierce Street. There will also be Harlem Renaissance impersonators in full dress and a costume contest, as well as plenty of soul food including Anne Spencer Mint Tea, a secret family recipe. The festival is Saturday, Sept. 26, from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. It’s free and open to the public. For more information on The Henry Street Heritage Festival, visit harrisonmuseum.com. For more information on The Pierce Street Harlem Renaissance Festival, visit annespencermuseum.com.