Two nonprofits set up to honor Lynchburg historical figures Anne Spencer and Dr. Robert Walter “Whirlwind” Johnson have received $250,000 to continue telling their stories.
The Anne Spencer House Museum and Garden, dedicated to the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance poet, has received $150,000, while the Whirlwind Johnson Foundation, honoring the medical doctor and tennis program founder, has received $100,000.
Spencer and Johnson were two pillars in the Lynchburg community who made lasting impacts for African Americans across the United States.
The African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, announced last month it will be distributing $3 million across 33 different Black historic sites in the United States. Those two local foundations were among the recipients.
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“We’re thrilled; this is a huge accomplishment,” said Shaun Spencer-Hester, executive director and treasure of the Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum at 1313 Pierce St.
Jolynn Johnson Smith — granddaughter of Dr. Robert Walter “Whirlwind” Johnson and president of the Whirlwind Johnson Foundation — said this is a huge honor for the foundation.
“We are honored; it’s a prestigious honor. We have worked really hard to get the right people in place,” Smith said. “We are fortunate to have a good grant writer and also board members that have moved the needle forward to make this thing happen.”
The action fund is the largest US resource dedicated to the preservation of African American historic places. Since its inception in 2017, the fund has supported 160 places through its national grant program for a total investment of $12.4 million, according to a release.
“At the National Trust, we aim to broaden the public’s understanding of the Black experience in America, while also underscoring the very urgent need to identify and protect these sites for the benefit of the communities they have long served,” Brent Leggs, executive director at AACHAF, said in a release.
Anne Spencer was a published librarian, teacher, gardener, civil rights activist and an important figure of the Harlem Renaissance with more than 30 poems published in her lifetime.
Spencer also helped to start the Lynchburg chapter of the NAACP. Spencer-Hester said it was created in the living room of Spencer’s home, which now is home to the museum.
Spencer-Hester, Spencer’s granddaughter, said she didn’t know her grandmother was a poet until her English teacher pulled her to the side and asked if she would read one of her poems for her eighth grade graduation.
“As my grandmother, she was just my grandmother. You don’t know who these people are,” Spencer-Hester said.
The funding that the Anne Spencer House and Museum received from the grant will go toward hiring an executive director, its first paid staff member, according to Spencer-Hester. The director will be their day-to-day person who will help raise funds not only for the fund development, but for preservation and restoration.
Spencer-Hester has been hands-on with the museum, taking care of any maintenance problems and working with the garden club in the garden, since her start because of a low budget and lack of funding.
“I’ve been doing this for many years, since 2008,” Spencer-Hester said. “But to have someone just focus in that position, is really going to help us go to a totally different level.”
Johnson attended medical school, all while working in New York at the train station every summer to save up money to pay for school, according to Smith. He came back to Lynchburg and started his medical practice. He integrated the medical field in Lynchburg, making it possible for Black doctors to practice medicine, deliver babies and perform surgery.
The former football All-American later would build a tennis dynasty in Lynchburg that produced the first two African American Grand Slam champions, Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe.
Johnson formed the New Junior Development Tennis Program under the American Tennis Association, according to the Whirlwind Foundation website. Each summer, he invited dozens of talented juniors to train on his backyard court at 1422 Pierce St.
He had players come to his camp and took them to various tournaments to develop their skills for three decades.
Smith said her grandfather made sure a lot of players received tennis scholarships and a lot of them went on to have careers as doctors, lawyers and executives.
Johnson was instrumental in integrating tennis.
“He knew how to diplomatically and tactfully create a landscape for African Americans to enter and be able to play the sport of tennis with others, equally and with the same options as other people in order to be successful,” Smith said.
Currently, Smith said the Whirlwind Johnson Foundation is in the process of deciding where to put the resources from the grant it’s received.
A few ideas include turning the property into a meaningful community space to carry out Johnson’s legacy, or create a tennis academy or possibly a conference space.
She said they have to nail down the plan quickly so they can identify architects to help carry the process forward.
“The fact that we can now preserve this is very meaningful, I think for the family but also for the community,” Smith said.
A big motivation for both Spencer-Hester and Smith is to tell the story.
Spencer-Hester said she has learned so much about Spencer in her time just working in the house.
“I have learned more about my grandmother in working in this museum than I knew about her when I was coming to visit her in this house,” Spencer-Hester said.
Smith said it’s very critical to get the Johnson house restored as it makes the community aware that something important happened there.
“I don’t want to see it be forgotten. And the only way to put it out there is for us to restore this property and open it up to people,” Smith said.
“The fact that we can now preserve this is very meaningful, I think for the family but also for the community. I don’t want to see it be forgotten. And the only way to put it out there is for us to restore this property and open it up to people.”
— Jolynn Johnson Smithgranddaughter of Dr. Robert Walter “Whirlwind” Johnson and president of the Whirlwind Johnson Foundation