Marian Spencer, segregation fighter who later served on Cincinnati City Council, dies at age 99

Mark Curnutte
Cincinnati Enquirer

Update, 8:35 a.m., July 11:  A private ceremony for Marian Spencer 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 her life will be held at 3 p.m. on Aug. 10 in the Fifth Third Arena at the University of Cincinnati.

Original story: Somewhere, a former slave named Henry Washington Walker Alexander has to be pleased with how his granddaughter listened to his morning lectures back home in Gallipolis, Ohio.

Not only did she hear them, Marian Regelia Alexander Spencer carried out her grandfather's words. "Every morning, he preached that we should never fail to vote, we should get our education, and speak up when we saw wrong being done," she said. 

Spencer, who led the battle to desegregate Coney Island's swimming pools in the 1950s and became the first African American woman elected to Cincinnati City Council in 1983, died Tuesday. She was 99. 

Spencer, of Avondale, died at 9:55 p.m. Tuesday at Hospice of Cincinnati at Twin Towers in College Hill. She had suffered a stroke on her 99th birthday, June 28, said her niece, Camille Haamid, of Clifton. Spencer was hospitalized for three days at University of Cincinnati Medical Center and then returned to her room at Twin Towers.

"I simply would say I am lucky to have had two mothers," said Haamid, who is the daughter of Marian's twin sister, Mildred, who is in hospice in Washington, D.C. "What happened to one – even a cold -- seemed to happen to the other. 

"Aunt Marian was one of the nicest people. She was gracious all the time. Some people act that way in public. Aunt Marian was gracious and kind when she was making breakfast."

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Opinion: Marian Spencer: A legacy of fighting justice

By any measure, as an individual or in partnership with her late husband, Donald Spencer Sr., Marian Spencer lived a life of consequence and purpose. Friends and admirers referred to her as "Ms. Civil Rights."

"She was Cincinnati's redeemer," said retired federal judge Nathaniel Jones, who met the Spencers in the early 1970s when they traveled to New York to meet with him. He was general counsel of the national NAACP at the time. The Spencers, leaders of the local NAACP branch, wanted Jones' help in desegregating Cincinnati Public Schools.

The Spencers had raised $30,000 as a sign of good faith, Jones said.

"Marian made it possible for people to realize they were better than they thought they were," Jones said. "To that extent, she assisted people in realizing their potential goodness."

Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley is among Spencer's admirers.

"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," Cranley said. "We mourn this loss but we are so grateful our city is better for her life."

In March 2016, the city of Cincinnati named a portion of Walnut Street Downtown in her honor. Marian Spencer Way runs between Theodore Berry Way and Second Street at The Banks.

"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," Cranley said. "She was that change."

Cranley on Wednesday said he has asked that city flags be flown at half-staff in her honor.

Though biracial, with a mix of African American, Cherokee and Scottish immigrant ancestors, she identified as African American. "If one drop of black blood is so precious, I was going to claim it," Spencer said. 

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Marian Spencer is sworn in as Cincinnati's vice mayor on Dec. 1, 1983.

In fact, in an interview with The Enquirer a few weeks before her 98th birthday in 2018, Spencer ranked the Coney Island campaign as her top achievement in a life filled with them.

One day in 1952, her sons – Donald Jr., 10, and Edward 8 – were watching a popular local children's TV program, "The Uncle Al Show," and saw a commercial for the park: "Everyone comes to Coney Island."

"When my kids said they wanted to go, I waited until they weren't around and called," Spencer said. "I talked to the girl who answered. I said, `We're Negroes, can we get in?' She was very quiet and said, `No, but I don't make the rules.'

"I said, `I know you don't, sweetheart, but I am going to find out who does.' I got 25 mothers and grandmothers together in Walnut Hills, and that's where I started the fight."

She built the foundation of her coalition with women because black men were afraid of losing their jobs at that time. Other supporters came from the Woman's City Club of Greater Cincinnati, where Spencer was one of the first African American members.

Spencer also was head of the NAACP's Legislative Committee then and found a young black lawyer, Michael Turpeau, to take the case. On the Fourth of July 1952, an armed guard chased Spencer and other women protestors away from the park gate.

Marian Spencer led the protest and legal battle to integrate Coney Island's Sunlite Pool, which was achieved in 1961.

She didn't give up even in the face of stubborn segregationists. The park was desegregated in 1955, but the whites-only rule for Coney's main attraction, Sunlite Pool, held on until 1961.

"I never felt I had to accept anything I didn't want to," Spencer said. "I didn't accept a `no' when it was wrong. It has been my responsibility to change things."

She was valedictorian of her graduating class at Gallia Academy High School. She moved to Cincinnati with her twin in 1938 to attend the University of Cincinnati. 

She married Donald Spencer on Aug. 12, 1940, and gave birth to Donald Jr. on Jan. 12, 1942. Later that spring, she earned her undergraduate degree in English from UC. She was prohibited as an African American from living on campus, but in December 2017 the university named its newest residence building after her, Marian Spencer Hall. She had served on the UC Board of Trustees from 1975 to 1980.

"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," UC President Neville Pinto said. "We have lost a true trailblazer. Her example will inspire generations to come."

Spencer sat in the living room of the house that she and her husband, a teacher who also worked in real estate, had built at the end of Lexington Avenue in Avondale in the early 1950s.

Her friend and biographer, Dorothy Christenson, who wrote "Keep on Fighting: The Life and Civil Rights Legacy of Marian A. Spencer," joined Spencer for the interview. The book was published in 2015 by Ohio University Press.

"She never demanded a spotlight for herself," said Christenson, who moved with her late husband to Cincinnati in 1971 and met Spencer through the fair-housing group Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME), the nonprofit Spencer had helped to create in 1969.

"Through it all, she knew she was dealing with big egos," Christenson added. "She said she would never get anywhere if she wasn't polite. She was polite. She smiled. She was tenacious. She is such a fine role model for anyone, particularly young African-American woman."

Though she lost, Spencer considered her failed run for the Cincinnati Board of Education in 1973 another accomplishment. She supported busing and school integration and had been instrumental in the NAACP's legal efforts to desegregate Cincinnati Public Schools in 1972. She chaired the education committee of the Cincinnati NAACP branch for 20 years and was elected the chapter's first female president in 1981.

"You don't win them all," she said in retrospect of her school board loss. "You learn from it and move on. That's what I always told my sons."

Spencer lived by those words.

As NAACP chapter president in the early 1980s, she teamed with famed civil rights preacher the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth to clean up a polluted site in Lower Price Hill. Their work led to a city ordinance, which was later adapted into national Superfund legislation.

Leaders of the Charter Committee asked her to run for city council as a Charterite.

"They asked me, and I ran," Spencer said. Her election, she added, "meant a few people thought I was right."

Hers was a life filled with public service and firsts.

Including Cincinnati City Council.

"I was in tears this morning when I heard the news," said councilwoman Tamaya Dennard, who is African American. "I think about what I am up against in 2019, but the fight I have is nothing compared to what she faced.

"I wouldn't be there if not for her taking the darts and insults. She paved the way for me. I stand on her shoulders."

Spencer served on boards or worked in other capacities with the U.S. Civil Rights Commission Ohio Advisory Board, Planned Parenthood, the Cincinnati Human Services Task Force, American Civil Liberties Union, Cincinnati Woman's City Club and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

She represented the Ohio Democratic Party at the party's national conventions in 1984 and 1988.

A list of her awards covers more than three pages in her biography. Her honors include Cincinnati Enquirer Woman of the Year in 1972, Great Living Cincinnatian in 1998, the Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame in 2010 and YWCA Racial Justice Award in 2011. In 2015, the Cincinnatus Association created the Donald and Marian Spencer "Spirit of America" Awards to recognize advocates of inclusion.

Spencer is survived by her two sons, Donald Spencer Jr. of Avondale and Edward Spencer of Richmond, California; three grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. Her husband, Donald Spencer Sr., preceded her in death in 2010 at age 95.

A private ceremony 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 her life will be held at 3 p.m. on Aug. 10 in the Fifth Third Arena at the University of Cincinnati.

Donald and Marian Spencer mourn the death in 2000 of their longtime friend and political ally Ted Berry.