It is the very ordinariness of the street as a whole that makes the 1300 and 1400 blocks of Pierce … remarkable. Buried in old downtown like a gold nugget encased in a chunk of rock, they offer nothing less than magic.
In recent years, Pierce Street has finally begun to receive its due. Eight historic markers now line its sidewalks, a density of homage unparalleled in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Five of those plaques honor individuals who contributed to the street’s mystique—poet Anne Spencer, her son Chauncey (one of the originators of the Tuskegee Airmen), tennis coach and physician Dr. Robert Walter Johnson, innovative educator and local politician C. W. Seay, and Frank Trigg, born into slavery but later the head of three colleges.
Perhaps the best way to emphasize that is simply to list some of the luminaries who have set foot there:
Iconic black writer and activist W. E. B. Du Bois. James Weldon Johnson, an early leader of the NAACP. 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. Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Lionel Hampton. Duke Ellington. Maya Angelou. And, not least, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
All part of the rich life story of an out-of-the-way street in an out-of-the-way city.
Given all the low points in the history of race relations in America—slavery, segregation, riots, lynchings—it would be difficult to choose one of them as the lowest.
Yet here is a strong candidate for that dubious honor: In September of 1906, thousands of New York City residents swarmed through the gates of the New York Zoological Park (popularly known as the Bronx Zoo) to gape at an African pygmy. In a cage.
Ota Benga had been purchased from slave traders in the Congo and brought to the United States by an explorer/missionary named Samuel Phillips Verner. Somehow, through a series of circumstances that remain cloudy even today, he was eventually turned over to the New York zoo for safekeeping—and perhaps even the opportunity for employment.
Amaza Lee Meredith should have known she couldn’t become an architect. As a black woman in the 1920s, she was disqualified on two counts from following her chosen profession, effectively barred from sources of education that might have given her credibility.
She didn’t care. The daughter of a man who designed things for a living, Meredith simply declared herself an architect and went about her business. To build her skill, she started out working with friends and relatives who weren’t overly concerned with her credentials, or lack of them.
And in the end, like a dandelion pushing its way up through a sidewalk, she raised her head above the societal barricade and earned grudging respect.
Frank Trigg: One Arm, Three Colleges
No one would ever argue that losing an arm can be fortunate. In the case of Frank Trigg, though, it was a definite turning point, and he made the most of it.
Born a slave in the Virginia Governor’s Mansion in 1850 (his parents were servants to Gov. John Floyd), Trigg lost his arm in a farm accident at the age of 13. Although the nature and circumstances of the injury have been lost in history (it may have involved threshing), the slave owner supposedly remarked that since the young man “was no more good with his hands,” he’d see “how good he could be with his head.”
Amelia Perry Pride: Heart and Hands
For too many former slaves, the end of black bondage in America offered no new beginning.
Although now free, they often had nowhere to go and starkly limited options for earning a living. Most were poorly educated.
Despite the efforts of groups such as the Freedman’s Bureau, the need was almost overwhelming, and the aftershocks from slavery within the black community lasted for decades after Appomattox.
Amelia Perry Pride was one of the fortunate ones, and she knew it. Her parents, born free and light-skinned (which made a difference in some circles), were in the upper echelon of post-war African American society in Lynchburg. William Perry was a respected carpenter and building contractor who had accumulated a substantial nest egg before his early death in 1873—two years after his wife, Ellen.
GUESTS TO THE NEIGHBORHOOD
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Anderson had a connection to Lynchburg through her mother, Annie, who once attended Virginia Seminary. Marian began singing in public at the age of six and continued through elementary and high school. Barred from the Philadelphia Music Academy because of her race, she managed to pull together the money for private lessons, and her career blossomed. In 1939, she became a controversial national figure when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow her to perform at a Constitution Hall concert. Thousands of DAR members resigned in protest, including Eleanor Roosevelt, but Anderson’s supporters arranged an alternative concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. As Anderson opened with “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” wrapped in a mink coat against a cool April breeze, a crowd of 75,000 people stretched out before her. Later, she spent several years touring Europe, where she entertained sold-out audiences and formed a lifetime friendship with famed Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. The DAR finally invited her to headline a concert at Constitution Hall in 1943, and in 1955 Anderson became the first African American singer to perform with the Metropolitan Opera, whose conductor, Arturo Toscanini, said “a voice like (Anderson’s) comes around once in a hundred years.” Anderson’s later career was a litany of awards and firsts. She sang for two presidential inaugurations (Eisenhower and Kennedy), was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, and lived to be 96. History does not record whether or not she sang for the Spencers when she visited, but she probably did.