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Marian Spencer: A Cincinnati civil rights icon remembered

Posted: 6:13 PM, Jul 10, 2019
Updated: 2019-07-11 07:22:35-04
Marian Spencer - Reagan

CINCINNATI — Marian Spencer's impact on the residents of Cincinnati, whether felt directly or not, have reverberated through generations.

She passed away at the age of 99 on July 9 , but her legacy and impression has helped to shape much of what Cincinnati is today.

She was the first female president of the NAACP, the first African American woman on city council and the first female vice mayor.

"She was fearless," said Tamaya Dennard, a Cincinnati city council member. "She challenged norms at all times. Being the only black woman on city council, I literally feel emboldened by her courage every day and it allows me to speak my truth as I see it."

Along the way, she fought valiantly for equality and civil rights for all in Cincinnati through many different avenues -- most famously, by fighting to integrate the swimming pool at Coney Island in the 1950s .

Her children saw a commercial on the Uncle Al show, welcoming children to come to Coney Island to swim in the new pool. Spencer's children wanted to go, like anyone else, but they were turned away by guards for the color of their skin.

"It was hard for a mother or father to explain to their little innocent, impressionable child -- you can't go there because you're colored," said Judge Ted N. Berry, with the Hamilton County Municipal Court. "You see, hate and racism is taught."

From that moment on, Spencer fought to teach her adopted home to challenge the unfairness and inequity of segregation. For leaders in Cincinnati like former mayor Mark Mallory, Spencer became well-known and indispensable.

"She had build up such a stature that when she engaged in a fight, people really paid attention and it really had an effect on the outcome," said Mallory. "It's going to take, I think, a long time for anybody else to amass that kind of presence."

The University of Cincinnati named a new residence hall to honor Spencer's legacy -- "Marian Spencer Hall" was named last year. This dedication holds particular weight because when Spencer attended the university herself, she was not permitted to live in campus dorms.

Judge Berry, who knew her for many decades, believes Spencer is akin to royalty.

"She's the Queen of the Queen City and we're going to have to stay the course with courage, love and grace," he said.