Local Author Shares Their Stories
Pierce Street Renaissance Historic District, on the 1300 and 1400 blocks of Pierce Street, is the smallest historic district in Lynchburg and has eight historic markers.
While the neighborhood boasts examples of Queen Anne, Shingle, Italianate and other architectural styles popular in the late-Victorian era, it’s the people who lived and visited Pierce Street that make it special.
Ask author and long-time local columnist Darrell Laurant about Pierce Street, and he’ll go a step further. He’ll say the people of Pierce Street—among them Harlem Renaissance poet Anne Spencer, Tuskegee Airman Chauncey Spencer, and tennis coach and physician Walter Johnson—“helped change America.”
“In the middle of a small city, in the middle of nowhere, in the inner city … all of these people became very successful,” Laurant said, adding, “The people on Pierce Street just did it their own way.”
Pierce Street and the individuals who built their homes and lives there are the primary subjects of Laurant’s latest book Inspiration Street: Two City Blocks That Helped Change America. The book was released in March by Blackwell Press.
Laurant is no stranger to writing about Lynchburg’s history and people, having spent more than 30 years as a columnist at the News & Advance, and Inspiration Street was not his first foray into Central Virginia history in book form.
Laurant is also the author of Even Here: A Small Virginia Community, A Violent Decade. The book explores the Bedford County legal system and what Laurant describes as a “whole series of really bizarre murders” that happened there in the 1980s.
And Laurant penned A City Unto Itself, about Lynchburg’s history, although he admits the project was a bit self-serving. “Nobody had written a book about Lynchburg beyond World War II, and I just got tired of looking up everything,” he said.
“I wrote it for myself as much as anything. I interviewed about 150 people. It gave me a sense of the city that I never had before. If I never sold a book, it would have been worth it to do it.”
Laurant is fast to say Inspiration Street is not intended to be a “scholarly work of history,” loaded with footnotes. Instead, it is a “quick read” at 80-some-pages. He further describes the book as “atmospheric … like a large essay.”
“As the title implies,” he said, “this will be about the aura of the street and its larger collective influence.”
While, “not the definitive book” on Pierce Street’s history, Laurant said he wanted to show how the people of Pierce Street, rather independently of each other, “developed these amazing lives.” He also wanted to depict the residents as they really were, warts and all.
“[A] complaint I have of history is they tend to make people so one dimensional,” he said. “They think of Anne Spencer as a sweet lady who worked in her garden and wrote poetry.
She had an interesting background growing up. “She was a very complicated person, too, and had an edge to her, and you can see it in her poetry. It’s not all about flowers, [but] civil rights and stuff. … It reads just like fiction, some of these people, the lives they had.”
Dr. Walter Johnson coached tennis players on a court he built in his yard at 1442 Pierce Street.
Among the hundreds of players he coached were Grand Slam winners Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe, both of whom paved the way for African Americans to compete internationally in tennis.
During his research, however, Laurant found that Johnson—nicknamed “Whirlwind”—was a “wild child” in his early years.
He got kicked out of colleges, went through a couple of marriages, and was an outstanding football player, scoring eight touchdowns
in a single game at Lincoln University.
“He’s a character,” Laurant said. “He’s a fascinating person. He’s a man of many contradictions. That’s part of it, too. … Sometimes, if you leave out the bad stuff, it’s not as significant, what they do.”
Pierce Street’s denizens also faced racism and other forms of discrimination while trying to achieve the American Dream. Chauncey Spencer—Anne’s son the Tuskegee Airman—had to go to Chicago to get his pilot’s license, because he couldn’t get one in Virginia.
After serving in World War II, he was caught up in McCarthyism and accused of being a communist.
Despite these roadblocks, Chauncey Spencer became a pioneering aviator, a police commissioner, a government official, an author and a member of the Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame.
“What we can learn from [them] is they didn’t allow themselves to be stopped,” Laurant said. “They just went ahead and did what they wanted to do and succeeded in it.”
It wasn’t only the full-time residents of Pierce Street that impacted American history, but also the educators, writers, artists, athletes and luminaries who spent time there.
Visitors to Edward and Anne Spencer’s house at 1313 Pierce Street included, among others, W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall and George Washington Carver, described by Laurant as “evangelist of the humble peanut.”
Boxer Joe Louis and baseball player Jackie Robinson also made appearances on Pierce Street, as did Ota Benga, a Congolese Pygmy once exhibited at the Bronx Zoo. He was a student of Anne Spencer’s and a playmate to her children.
One visitor to the Spencer house was singer Marian Anderson who, in 1939, was denied an opportunity to sing at Constitution Hall because she was black. Instead, Anderson held a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that attracted 75,000 people.
“Instead of being defeated, all of these people [on Pierce Street] and the people they drew to them, they didn’t take no for an answer,” Laurant said.
While at the News & Advance, Laurant said he wrote numerous articles about Anne Spencer’s gardens and Pierce Street, but it wasn’t until about a year ago that he got “really serious” about writing the book.
“It was a fun book to do, and I just wanted to make these people a little more human and more kind of believable in some of the stuff that they had to overcome,” Laurant, now semi-retired and living in Lake George, N.Y., said.
“I bet there’s not another city block in the country that has as much history as that one does.”
By Suzanne Ramsey