Before Darrell Laurant wrote this jewel of a history, Inspiration Street: Two City Blocks That Helped Change America, he wrote a novel called The Kudzu Kid.
How could a Georgia girl resist a title that included the word “kudzu”?
My intention in writing this review of Inspiration Street was to begin with a bit of personal history–how Darrell Laurant and I (who have never actually met) “met.” As it turns out, neither of us remembers.
What we both do remember is the immediate connection, the long emails, the rambling, mutually satisfying phone calls. But Whatever-Came-First is lost.
It didn’t take long to discover that Darrell has devoted part of his retirement to establishing a website, Snowflakes in a Blizzard, that supports unpublished writers and those who are struggling with finding an audience for their books–a website whose goal is connecting readers to books they might otherwise have missed and giving authors a chance at a full-page spread and some free exposure.
Creating Snowflakes, however, is only one of his many volunteer “jobs”.
Darrell retired in 2013 and, as far as I can tell, he hasn’t slowed down since. As early as 2014, he was putting the finishing touches on The Kudzu Kid, already beginning work on Inspiration Street, writing for several journals and magazines, and editing.
Inspiration Street draws on the rich variety of his life. He was a reporter and journalist whose meat and bread was observation, research, and writing. He was a citizen of a particularly interesting small Virginia town, appreciative of the particulars of that place, yet come there from “up North” with the outsider’s keen eye. It is a small book, running to only a bit over 150 pages, as befits its apparently small subject: two city blocks in a relatively small town in Virginia. In his Introduction, “Why Pierce Street Matters,” Laurant writes of his book,
“Therefore, this will not presume to be the definitive work on all those who lived on Pierce and made it the fascinating place that it became. That would take years of grinding research to accomplish, and a thousand pages of text.
Instead, as its title implies, this will be about the aura of the street, and its larger collective influence. not an academic work, thick with footnotes, but a story. I spent years as a storyteller, and that is the turf on which I feel most comfortable.”
But in that same Introduction, he makes clear that Pierce Street is no small subject,
“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, founder 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.”
No small subject, indeed. Inspiration Street is a delightful blend of ” the rich life story of an out-of-the-way street in an out-of-the-way city,” and the backdrop of the massive cultural shifts that moved this nation into and through the Civil Rights Era. Darrell Laurant is a storyteller and understands that at the heart of a good narrative is the individual story that reveals the larger truth. Pierce Street matters.
“Architect and philosopher R. Buckminster Fuller once said: ‘You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.'”
That is why Pierce Street matters.”
In this quiet place, in their quiet way, the 1300 and 1400 blocks of Pierce Street created a daily reality that predated and transcended the struggles of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Somehow, the citizens of that neighborhood, mostly African-American, woke up every day, lived their lives, shared their joys and their sorrows, and did it with the sure confidence of their place in the world and the assumption that the world would figure it out. Pierce Street was a new model.
Inspiration Street begins with its catalogue of characters and that is how it goes on.
Chapter Two, “Colors,” is a study in the distinctions among skin tones. It begins with a story told by one Robert Goins, a local radio disc jockey, known as Mad Lad.
“‘In Lynchburg at the time, there were imaginary lines dividing where the different races lived. On Pierce Street, that dividing line was 15th Street, and the house my Dad wanted was just on the other side. But he had the money to pay cash for it, $4,500, and when he went to the real estate office downtown to close on it, he parked the car with my Mom and me in it about two blocks away and walked over. He was light enough to pass for white, but we weren’t.
‘Everything was fine until I had to go to the bathroom. Before my Mom could stop me, I had bolted out of the car and up the street. I burst into the real estate office and yelled: ‘Dad, where’s the bathroom?’ That real estate man’s face went from green light to red light, just like that. But the papers had already been signed.'”
The history of Pierce Street includes everyone from the visiting luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance to “Dr. Tennis,” Dr. R. Walter Johnson, a champion tennis player and sometime trainer to Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson. Known in Lynchburg as “The Godfather of Black Tennis,” Johnson was only inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2009, twenty-eight years after his death.
But at the center of the life of Pierce Street and of Darrell Laurant’s narrative is the poet, Anne Spencer–her home, her studio, her garden, and her poetry. The chapter called “Renaissance,” begins
“What drew many of the leaders, thinkers and doers of the Harlem Renaissance to Anne and Edward Spencer’s Pierce Street home was not their shared vision of social justice, the invigorating intellectual exchanges around the dinner table, or even Anne’s cooking.
It was indoor plumbing.”
It is around Anne Spencer that the story swirls. Anchoring the book in the early “Annie” and in the final chapter, “Rebirth,” her history and her work embody both the decline of Pierce Street and its reclamation. Although her house was named a National Historic Landmark a year after her death in 1975, the property wasn’t maintained and, as Laurant describes it, “became feral.”
Starting in 1983, the Lynchburg Garden Club began a project to restore the garden. Eventually family members returned to Lynchburg, renovated the house and turned it into a museum, and all of the 1300 and 1400 blocks of Pierce Street were named Historic Landmarks.
Life on Pierce Street moves forward, still a process and still “a new model that makes the old model obsolete.”
On Pierce Street, it is the citizens–each one of them–who grab our attention, who draw us in, who make it seem as if this really is the way of the world.
There is a sadness in knowing that the world hasn’t figured it out yet.
Darrell Laurant’s Inspiration Street offers the hope that someday the world just might.
Contact Darrell at firstname.lastname@example.org
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