Dr. Marian Spencer, Cincinnati’s legendary Civil Rights leader, received her well deserved roses at a reception with friends and community leaders in 2016. Photo by Brewster Rhoads
Dr. Marian Spencer, who spent her life questioning injustices, died at 9:55 p.m. Tuesday, July 9, 2019, while surrounded by her family at Twin Towers in College Hill. She had suffered a stroke on her 99th birthday, June 28.
A private ceremony at JC Battle & Sons Funeral Home for family and close friends will precede cremation. Her ashes will go to Fox Lake, Indiana, where she summered and swam. A public Memorial Celebration of Mrs. Spencer’s life will be held at 3 p.m. on August 10 in Fifth Third Arena at the University of Cincinnati.
Surviving her husband of 70 years, Donald Spenccr, Mrs. Spencer leaves behind of their sons Donald Jr. and Edward, grandchildren Matthew, Oliver and Bonita, great-grandchild Emmanuel, and a twin sister Mildred Malcolm.
The Cincinnati Civil Rights icon is celebrated for becoming the first African American woman elected to Cincinnati City Council in 1983, and for helping desegregate Cincinnati Public Schools in 1972. Still, she said her proudest achievement stems from her efforts to give children a voice.
In 1952, Marian Spencer’s sons, Edward and Donald Jr., were 8 and 10 years old, respectively, when they heard a radio advertisement for Coney Island. “The kids said to me, ‘Mother, can we go to Coney Island?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, but I’ll find out,’ ” recalled Spencer, who then stepped out of her sons’ earshot to call the amusement park. “I said, ‘We’re Negroes, and I don’t want my sons to be refused,’ and the girl—she was very quiet—said, ‘I’m sorry, but they’re not open.’ And I said, ‘I’ll try to find out why.’ ” Spencer enlisted the NAACP to sue Coney Island, and over the next three years, she organized integrated marches at the park’s front gates. “Those normal recreational operations that were there for children should never be withheld from them, certainly not my children,” she said. In 1955, the NAACP won the suit, and Spencer’s sons could finally enjoy the rides and picnic grounds at Coney Island.
She always made her trip paired with a White family, to document the discrimination. The effort had the backing of the Citizen’s Committee for Human Rights (a local affiliate of the Congress of Racial Equality), the Cincinnati Urban League, and the NAACP. With their documentation the Spencers joined a lawsuit.
Yet the desegregation of Coney Island was not a single summer’s work. Yet as late as 1955, the amusement park routinely refused admission to all but white visitors. Even admission to the Park did not end the owners’ resistance. Because the large pool and dance venue at Coney were located across the county line, in Clermont County, it required several more years of litigation to integrate those facilities.
MRS. SPENCER called Coney Island in 1952 as a concerned parent, not an activist, but that led her to fight for equal housing, education, and employment opportunities for the city’s African American community. She became the first female president of Cincinnati’s NAACP chapter in 1981, and later serve as vice mayor.
Donald and Marian Spencer worked tirelessly as a team for Civil Rights in Cincinnati, taking on segregation in the public schools in the ‘60’s through the ‘80’s through a magnet school approach. Donald Spencer chaired the campaign to fund the Public Schools with a new levy. In 2003 he was active in the campaign to raise a $435 million levy to build or rebuild all the school buildings.
The Douglass School Building from 1980 was refurbished in 2017 to house the new Donald and Marian Spencer Center for Gifted and Exceptional Students.
A UC residence hall was recently named in honor of her contributions to the university. And in 2016, Cincinnati City Council dedicated a street in honor of Marian Spencer, calling her a “civic treasure.”
Mayor John Cranley said of Mrs. Spencer, “Small in stature, but a giant in impact, Marian Spencer led by example to build a more integrated city, and we are all trying to live up to her example. We mourn this loss but we are so grateful our city is better for her life. One of my greatest joys as mayor was driving her to city hall the day we named a street in her honor, during which she shared with me that as a granddaughter of a slave she has seen a lot of change for the better. She was that change.’’
Cranley has asked City Manager Patrick Duhaney to fly city flags at half-staff to honor Mrs. Spencer.”
Former Mayor Mark Mallory said, “I was saddened to learn of the passing of Mrs. Marian Spencer. She was an amazing Civil Rights leader and trailblazer whose life work made Cincinnati a better place. As the first Black female member of Cincinnati City Council, she paved the way for others to follow. During my years working with Mrs. Spencer, I found her to be a fierce advocate, who never backed down. She was a real fighter for equality and defender of the voiceless. She would sometimes call me when I was mayor to give me subtle nudges about things I was working on. I always made the adjustments she suggested. The Mallory family has lost a friend and Cincinnati has lost a treasure. We send our condolences to the Spencer family.
UNIVERSITY OF CINCINNATI President President Neville Pinto, said, “Marian Spencer was a persistent and mighty agent of change who dedicated her life to justice and breaking down barriers that restrict the lives and opportunities of Americans of color. We have lost a true trailblazer. Her example will inspire generations to come.”
Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney, publisher of “The Cincinnati Herald,’’ said, “Marian Spencer was a force to be reckoned with. She saw a wrong and refused to accept it. When her sons couldn’t get into Coney Island because they were Black, she organized the protests that led to the park’s desegregation. As chair of the NAACP’s Education Committee and later as the Cincinnati NAACP’s first female president, she was instrumental in the fight to desegregate Cincinnati Public Schools. She was the first African American woman on City Council and the first African American woman vice mayor. Mrs. Spencer never took ‘no’ for an answer when it came to challenging injustices. She never gave up. She never stopped fighting. And through it all, there was never bitterness …. only love for her community and her city.”
Kearney added her parents became friends with the Spencers before she was born, and the two families attended the same church, Mt. Zion Methodist, which became New Vision United Methodist. “I’ve known and admired her my entire life,’’ Kearney added. “I am grateful that we had her for 99 years, but even that does not seem long enough. When my mom died in 2012, Mrs. Spencer said, ‘Your mother has gone from your arms into the arms of God.’ I found her words comforting and unforgettable. I know that Mrs. Spencer now is in the arms of God, and God is saying, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. Well done.’”
Eric Kearney, former state senator and president and CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce, said, “Marian Spencer opened doors that seemingly were nailed shut. Whether we’re talking about the desegregation of Coney Island, desegregation of our public schools, voting rights, or access for all to city amenities, such as Krohn Conservatory, she fought for justice. She and her husband, Donald Spencer, were an indomitable team from the beginning. They loved life and never shied away from a good fight against racism, sexism and oppression. On a personal note, I learned invaluable lessons from her when we served in the Charter Party. She was a wonderful role model for how to make change, and how to serve.”
Cincinnati activist Brian Garry said, “I can’t say enough about Marian Spencer. She was courageous, fearless, sweet and powerful. The kindest person you’ll ever meet. Marian Spencer has been an anchor me and for Cincinnati for social justice. She, along with my mentor, the Rev. Maurice McCrackin, (who was involved with her in many causes) were best friends. Every year he would have Christmas dinner at her house.’’
MARIAN ALEXANDER SPENCER was born in 1920 in the Ohio River town of Gallipolis, Ohio. One year after the “Red Summer” of 1919, during which there was an increase in race riots and lynchings. Her childhood included watching marches of the Ku Klux Klan in front of her home. Following the example of her grandfather, an ex-slave and community leader, she joined the NAACP at age 13 and grew up to leave a legacy of Civil Rights victories.
Marian Spencer graduated from high school with honors as co-valedictorian in 1938. She moved to Cincinnati to attend UC, earning a bachelor’s degree in English in 1942. She met and married UC alumnus Donald Spencer in 1940.
He had the same interests in fighting for civil justice, she once said in an interview with “The Cincinnati Herald,” and at the beginning of their marriage they agreed to make that cause the focus in their lives. Donald Spencer died in 2010, at the age of 95. The couple had been married for 69 years.
Mrs. Spencer served on the University of Cincinnati Board of Trustees from 1975 to 1980. She and her husband received honorary degrees from the university in 2006.
Her community activism was constant and widespread. Spencer served on the boards or in other capacities for the American Civil Liberties Union, the Cincinnati Woman’s City Club, Links and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
At a University of Cincinnati Distinguished Alumni Celebration in April 2018 at Music Hall, Jennifer Heisey, executive director of the UC Alumni Association and president of alumni relations for the UC Foundation, said of Mrs. Spencer, who was among the Class of 2018 honorees and received the William Howard Taft Medal for Notable Achievement, “For nearly 80 years, Dr. Spencer has been a catalyst for the advancement of Civil Rights in the Cincinnati area and across the country, demonstrating a ceaseless commitment to fairness and equality for all members of society. Her work led her to exert herself against critical issues and pivot points that would unlock needed progress, and to receive countless honors saluting her passion and fortitude in challenging the status quo in the name of justice. She recently donated to UC the entirety of the personal archives that document the careers of her late husband, Donald, and herself through a lifetime of peaceful fighting for rights.’’
UC PRESIDENT Neville G. Pinto, said of Spencer, who along with her husband held honorary degrees from the university, during the naming last year of a residence hall in her honor, “When Marian was a student at the University of Cincinnati in the late 1930s and early 1940s, she was not permitted to live in a dormitory on our campus,’’ Pinto said. “So it is both fitting and powerfully symbolic that today we recognize Mrs. Spencer by naming our high-rise residential structure Marian Spencer Hall. This namesake, as beautiful and tall as it is, represents only one small measure compared to the life of the towering, yet petite, original Mrs. Spencer.
The University of Cincinnati became more inclusive because of what Mrs. Spencer and her husband Donald did through the years, Pinto said.
DONALD SPENCER was born in Cincinnati in 1915. He graduated from Walnut Hills High School in 1932. At Walnut Hills, he worked to ensure that African American students could attend the junior-senior prom. He then went to the University of Cincinnati where he first graduated with a degree in chemistry in 1936, a second bachelor’s in education in 1937, and a Master of Education in 1940. When he arrived at UC, there were no extra-curricular activities open to African American men, so he founded an organization called the Quadres, wrote and directed a musical and performed in the Quadres production of his work. He was also a founding member of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity on the campus in 1939, providing a Greek opportunity for fellow African Americans.
After finishing his education, in 1940 he married Marian Spencer. (Marian spent her first year at UC living with her aunt and uncle.) He also began an 18-year career teaching math in the Cincinnati Public Schools.
When the Spencers bought their first house in 1944, Donald took notice of the commission earned by the broker. Anxious to try his own hand in the business, he signed on as an agent with Horace Sudduth, an African American who had been in the real estate business since about 1910, and who dominated the market for African American buyers in Walnut Hills. Spencer set out on his own, still teaching math for the Cincinnati Public Schools.