CINCINNATI -- As a young African-American girl growing up in rural southeast Ohio during the 1920s, Marian Spencer remembers the lessons her family taught her about what was important.
Spencer’s family owned Alexander’s General and Hardware Store in Gallipolis. She lived above the shop on the second floor with her parents, two brothers and a twin sister, Mildred.
Located across the railroad tracks on the “Negro side” of the small river town, the store was a gathering place for African-American residents and, more importantly, a polling place during elections.
“The thing I always remember is when I was a young girl looking through the crack in the wall, down into the first level of the house where the grocery was, watching people go in to vote,” said Spencer, who will turn 94 in June.
“My father turned his store over to voting whenever there was an election,” she said.
Her family’s trailblazing spirit carried on with Spencer, who moved to Cincinnati in 1938 to attend college.
Over the years, Spencer would become a pioneer for civil rights in the Queen City.
As president of the all-black West End YWCA in 1948, Spencer negotiated a merger with the Downtown branch, which only was open to white members. Two years later, she introduced desegregation policies for the YWCA’s camps and swimming pools nationwide.
Spencer was active in the 1949 campaign to elect black attorney Theodore M. Berry to City Council; along with later efforts to keep the proportional representation system of voting that saw Cincinnati elect an African-American to public office when few other U.S. cities were doing so.
But Spencer’s most well-known accomplishment began in an unlikely manner: A request made by her two young sons one sunny morning in 1952 as they watched “The Uncle Al Show,” a local children’s TV program.
The boys saw a commercial advertising a kid’s day at Coney Island amusement park, and asked their mother if she would take them.
“I told my sons, ‘I don’t know but I will find out,’” Spencer said recently, while sitting in the living room of her Avondale home. “I went to the kitchen and closed the door, because I didn’t want them to hear the conversation if it was negative.”
By this time, Spencer was a housewife involved in various civic groups, so she wasn't shy phoning the park. When a woman answered, she asked if the event was open to all children. After Spencer initially was told yes, she informed the receptionist her children were black.
The woman on the phone stammered and backtracked, sheepishly adding she didn’t make the rules.
“I said, ‘Honey, I know you don’t make the rules but I am going to find out who does,’” Spencer recalled.
More than three years before Rosa Parks refused to give her seat to a white passenger in Alabama, triggering the modern civil rights era, Spencer was determined to take action.
A board member of the NAACP’s local chapter, she organized protests at Coney Island’s front gate. Among those who took part was the Rev. Maurice McCrackin.
The picketers, a mixture of white and black people, kept returning to the park trying to gain admittance. In one early encounter, Spencer was told to move away from the gate by an armed security guard who pointed a gun at her.
Later, when some protestors were arrested and taken to the Cincinnati Workhouse, McCrackin led a hunger strike that led to their freedom.
A lawsuit was filed against Coney Island, and ultimately African-Americans won the right to enter the park. In a legal quirk, however, although most of the park was in Hamilton County, the portion containing the swimming pool was in Clermont County and the ruling didn’t apply there.
Another lawsuit was filed and, finally, black people were allowed to swim at Coney Island in 1962 – a full decade after the legal battle began.
“My sons were really too old to go by then,” Spencer said. “But I’m glad we did it for the other children. I just don’t feel it ever should’ve happened to kids. Children can’t help themselves, they can’t help who they are.”
Spencer’s activism didn’t end with the Coney Island victory.
'Why Don't We Work On This Now'
In 1972, Spencer was one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit alleging unconstitutional segregation in Cincinnati Public Schools. It led to a 1984 consent decree making changes to where students attended school, and Spencer was on the oversight committee monitoring compliance until the 1990s.
Also, Spencer became the first African-American woman to head the NAACP’s local chapter; and was the first black female elected to City Council in 1983. While on the group, she was selected as vice mayor.
Spencer’s work inspired subsequent generations of African-American leaders.
Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge Tyrone Yates first met Spencer when he was a young child and both attended Mount Zion United Methodist Church. Their paths crossed again in 1990, when Spencer was a Charter Committee board member and Yates was being appointed to City Council.
“Despite my inexperience in government,
she was a wise and close confidential supporter and adviser,” Yates said. “She always told me that Charter members of council should act independently and adhere to the Charter and support proportional representation.”
After all these years, Yates still considers Spencer a role model.
“Mrs. Spencer is all class. From her straight ‘A’ days at UC in the ‘40s, she has been an unrelenting voice for justice for all people. She has never refused to speak out and stand up,” the judge said.
“Future generations will remember her as a voice for freedom for all Cincinnatians.”
Dot Christenson, a longtime friend who worked for Spencer while she was on council, said her demeanor can disarm even some critics.
“She has always been cheerful and energetic,” Christenson said.
Noting that Spencer was pushing for civil rights in the 1940s, well before the bus boycotts and lunch counter sit-ins in the South, Christenson credits her with making Cincinnati a better city.
“A lot of progress has been made, although there’s still more that needs to be done, but the progress here would’ve been 25 or 30 years later if it wasn’t for Marian,” Christenson said. “She always said, ‘Why don’t we work on this now?’”
Tough Approach, Easy Smile
Tim Burke, chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, echoes the sentiment. Burke first met Spencer in 1977, when she was giving him advice on how to help run a friend’s council campaign.
“Marian never gives up,” Burke said. “Her approach is consistent, strong and tough, but typically delivered with a smile. That last part helps get a lot done.”
Encouraging Spencer in her efforts over the years was her husband, Donald, a schoolteacher, real estate agent and activist in his own right. After 69 years of marriage, Donald passed away in 2010 at age 95.
“I never accepted second-class positions. I never felt I should have to, or I that I should be silent,” Spencer said. “And I married a man who was as bad as I was.”
Donald asked her to marry him on their second date, she said. Although she was focused on her education and hadn’t been concerned about boys or dating, Spencer decided to accept because “he thought the same way I did.”
“She and Don were a team that fought and won many battles for justice, but they never stopped finding new ones to fight and win,” Burke said.
Spencer’s persistence is a family trait.
Her grandfather, Henry Washington Walker Alexander, opened the hardware store in the 1870s, shortly after arriving in Ohio.
Henry Alexander was born into slavery in Union County, Va., in 1854; his mother also was a slave, while his father was the slave owner who controlled the plantation.
Unlike the other slaves, Alexander’s parentage gave him an advantage.
“He was taken into the big house and taught to read,” Spencer said. “Then, the mother was allowed to take a husband. In turn, they taught their half-brothers. If others had known they were doing it, they would have been jailed because you’re not supposed to teach slaves to read.”
Alexander was nine when the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves. An older sister moved with him to West Virginia and, when he was about 20, Alexander moved to Ohio. The man wanted to be in an area that was always a free state for black people.
“Every morning, he got up and gave the household a lesson,” Spencer said. “It began with, ‘Get your education.’ He could read, he could write and he could figure.”
But it was Spencer’s father, Harry McDonald Alexander, who taught her to overcome fear in the pursuit of a just cause.
One night, when Marian and her twin sister were about six or seven, Harry took the girls onto a second-floor balcony to watch a Ku Klux Klan march.
At the time, Gallipolis was so small that it didn’t have streetlights, and the fiery torches held by the masked marchers lit up the sky and frightened the girls.
“Daddy took the two of us out on this little balcony,” Spencer said. “He held my hand on one side, and he held Millie’s on the other. And he said, ‘Look at them, girls. They’re white men hiding under sheets because what they’re doing is wrong.’
“We were up over them, looking down on them with their flaming tapers, and dad said to look at the guy in the middle,” she added. “He had a noticeable limp. Daddy said, ‘That’s Jake Livesay. He sells you penny candy across from the school everyday.’ We were little kids, and they were twice as tall as us. It was scary but daddy, he effectively removed those hoods.”
For more stories by Kevin Osborne, visit www.wcpo.com/osborne . Follow him on Twitter at @kevinwcpo