Perhaps the best way to emphasize the importance of this street and this block is simply to list some of the luminaries who have set foot there:
Iconic black writer and activist W.E.B. DuBois. James Weldon Johnson, founder and first executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (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. Senator 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. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. And, most recently, the street was home to Leland Melvin, who was both a professional football player and a space shuttle astronaut. All of them are part of the rich life story of an out-of-the-way street in an out-of-the-way city.
If you happen to be interested in African American history, Pierce Street is a place you almost have to visit. Or perhaps you've come to the realization that "black history" is really just history, an integral part of the larger American story.
Either way, it's best to start your visit at the Anne Spencer House at 1313 Pierce, a portal into the block's remarkable past. Even without the historic marker in front of it, the house would be easy to pick out from its neighbors because of its distinctive wrap-around porch and the black-and-white checkerboard pattern on the front sidewalk.
That's probably what W.E.B. DuBois saw as he made his way to the Spencers' front door one afternoon not long after the end of World War I. DuBois, in Lynchburg to fulfill a speaking engagement at Virginia Seminary & College, was appalled when his hosts offered him a metal washtub in response to his request for a shower. Embarrassed, the college officials directed him to the Spencers' house several blocks away, where Edward Spencer - like his wife, Anne, a Seminary graduate - had installed indoor plumbing and hot water.
The author of the best-selling book The Souls of Black Folk and a co-founder of the NAACP, DuBois was one of the most influential African American voices of his time. To have him suddenly appear unannounced on the Spencers' porch must have been like receiving an unexpected visit from Oprah Winfrey today. But DuBois got his shower, and he spread the word that the Spencer's home was a congenial oasis in the segregated wilderness between Washington and Atlanta.
Not long afterward, James Weldon Johnson, a noted author, poet and songwriter, who was named the first Executive Secretary of the NAACP, came down to Lynchburg to help Anne start a chapter there. He and the Spencers became close friends, and Johnson's successor, Walter White, also made several trips to 1313 Pierce.
This distinguished trio was then followed over the years by many of the major figures of the Harlem Renaissance. And Anne Spencer soon became not only a hostess to these black intellectuals and writers, but one of them.
It was James Weldon Johnson who discovered that Anne had been composing poetry of rare depth, wisdom and sensitivity, some of it scrawled spontaneously on the interior walls of her house. Johnson shared some of Anne's work with publisher friends in New York, and she ultimately became the only African-American poet included in the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women.
Much of her poetry was written inside Edankraal, the small cottage Edward built for her in the garden behind the house. If you go to 1313 Pierce, you might find Spencer's granddaughter, Shaun Spencer Hester, on the premises to welcome you. If not, you are free to stroll down the driveway at one side and down into the garden itself.