Anna Belle Rhodes Penn

In our Classroom column, we endeavor to include partners, companions, husband-and-wife mates who have made significant contributions to the struggle for freedom and justice. Last week, we featured Irvine Garland Penn, the pioneering journalist and chronicler of the Black press. Conveniently for us, his wife Anna Belle Rhodes Penn was a writer in every way comparable to Irvine, and perhaps even more creative. 

 Born on June 18, 1865, in Paris, Kentucky, Anna was the daughter of William Emerson and Sophia Piland Rhodes. She was still very young when her parents moved to Lynchburg, Virginia. As a gifted student at a private school, she was only 13 when she began studying at Shaw University. By 1880, she had earned a BA degree in classics and then began teaching at the school before returning home to continue her career. 

In 1886, Rhodes Penn was a participant at a summer institute at the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (now Virginia State University), which was a state requirement for teachers. The program was newly formed two years before her arrival, making her among the first Black women to enroll. According to the records in the program’s archives, she was a prominent and active student at the institute. Exemplary of her involvement, she was asked to compose an essay for the closing graduate exercises. “All that glitters is not gold” was the theme of her essay and it was overwhelmingly received by the audience and John Mercer Langston, the school’s president.

Langston, himself a distinguished man of letters and an early relative of Langston Hughes, congratulated her on her command of language and the beauty of her diction when she delivered it. In his estimation, it was among the best he had ever heard. He confessed that he was mesmerized by the words and how well she articulated them. There was little surprise among those who knew of her literary aspirations that she was selected to write and deliver the address at the closing ceremonies upon graduation from the institute.

Since her formative years, she had been writing poems and was encouraged by her parents and teachers. Two of her later poems, “No Footsteps Backward” and “Light Out of Darkness,” were delivered on various ceremonial occasions, including at the Quarto-Centennial of Shaw University. The latter poem, according to author and historian Jessie Carney Smith, celebrated the school’s “role in alleviating the illiteracy of slavery inflicted upon Black Americans…its dominant images being light and dark thus giving the poem a Biblical as well as a political tone.”

Moreover, Smith continued, Anna used her poetry to explore themes of a more personal nature, such as love and grief. Her poetry appeared in a number of publications and whenever she recited them, it added to the impact of the words, thereby giving her wider recognition and creating demand for her as a speaker. 

Of course, none of this expertise was ignored by her husband, and she was an invaluable assistant in all of his literary and journalistic writings, most indispensably in his book “The Afro-American Press and Its Editors” in 1891.

Perhaps in devoting too much of her time to aiding and abetting her husband’s projects and books, she never published a book under her name, which must not have been an important matter for her. And then there was the family to deal with. In 1889, Anna married Irvine and, as we noted last week, they had seven children: Wilhelmina (b. 1890), Irvine Garland Jr. (b. 1892), Georgia (b. 1894), Elizabeth (b. 1896), Louise (b. 1898), Marie (b. 1900), and Anna Belle (b. 1903). 

Anna died in 1930, just a few weeks before her husband, and both are buried in the Colored American Cemetery in Cincinnati.

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