Cincinnati civil rights pioneer Marian Spencer dead at age 99

Her outlook: 'You've got to be unafraid.'
Marian Spencer, seated, in March 2019 with the four Winton Hills Academy students who wrote a book about her. The girls' teacher is pictured, too.
Posted at 6:17 AM, Jul 10, 2019

CINCINNATI — Marian Spencer, a Cincinnati civil rights pioneer best known for her fight to integrate Coney Island and its swimming pool in the 1950s, has died, according to Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney of the Cincinnati Herald, who spoke to Spencer's son.

She was 99.

Spencer last spoke to WCPO in March during a ceremony where four Winton Hills Academy students told her they won a national competition for a book called “Marian Spencer: A Light in the Darkness” that they created about her life.

She said then that she didn’t plan to stop shining that light any time soon.

“If I’m six feet under, and something’s going wrong up here,” she said with a wry smile, “I’m going to say, ‘You all get busy. You’ve been quiet too long!’”

Born in Gallipolis, Ohio, as Marian Alexander, she and her family lived with her grandfather, Henry Alexander, who was a freed slave. She became a member of the NAACP at the age of 13 after she had seen members of the Ku Klux Klan march in front of her home.

She graduated from Gallia Academy High School in 1938 as co-valedictorian with her twin sister, Mildred Malcolm. The two also were the first African American members of the National Honor Society there. The sisters moved here to attend the University of Cincinnati. At UC, she campaigned for the whites-only college prom to be open to all students.

It was the start of a lifetime of activism in her adopted home.

Marian Spencer had warm greetings for Winton Hills Academy students in March 2019.

She was in college when she met her future husband, Donald Spencer, a teacher and real estate broker who founded the Beta Eta chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi, a predominantly African American fraternity. He told her on their second date that he wanted to marry her, and they married in 1940. Mrs. Spencer graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English in 1942.

Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley announced Wednesday that city flags would be flown at half-staff in her honor.

"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 in a statement. "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."

Dot Christenson, a close friend who wrote a biography about Mrs. Spencer published in 2015, said Mrs. Spencer's grandfather was perhaps her most important influence. He was born a slave but was the plantation owner's son and was educated as a result, Christenson said.

Her grandfather was an important leader in Gallipolis, building a store that he turned into a voting station each year. Alexander also built the first black school and then the first black high school. After the community passed a tax levy to repair both the black and white schools in town, school leaders repaired only the white school, Christenson wrote in her book "Keep on Fighting: The Life and Civil Rights Legacy of Marian A. Spencer."

Alexander sued the school board, and the courts ultimately forced both schools to integrate.

"She grew up with him showing these wonderful examples of what you do and how you change things," Christenson said.

She also had a knack for multi-tasking, long before that term was fashionable, said her younger son, Edward Spencer.

"She knew how to respond to crises, and she made a really good pineapple upsidedown cake," he said. "And really good rolls, too."

Mrs. Spencer's grandson, Oliver Spencer, described his grandmother's generosity as boundless.

"She was the kind of person who knew everyone at the bank and at the grocery store and at the post office on a first-name basis," he said. "People loved her because they really felt genuine warmth coming from her all of the time."

That was true even when Mrs. Spencer's sons were small, Edward Spencer said.

"There wasn't anyone that my mother didn't seem to know. They certainly seemed to be responsive to her," he said. "And my brother and I just kind of hung around the glow of that or, maybe on darker days, the shadow of that."

Mrs. Spencer also worked hard to instill a sense of self-worth in her grandchildren and always had her family's best interests at heart, Oliver Spencer said.

While she is best known for her advocacy for racial equity, Mrs. Spencer said her work for the community encompassed even more.

"I don't think enough attention is given to what she did for women's rights, environmental rights and LGBTQ rights, certainly before all that was popular," he said. "If you look at where she spent her time, I think it really is reflective of someone who was concerned with everyday people and the disenfranchised."

Mrs. Spencer's famous challenge to Coney Island started after her sons, Donald Jr. and Edward Alexander, heard an advertisement inviting local children to visit.

As she explained many times over the years, she called to ask if all children were welcome. At first, the young woman who answered said yes. After Spencer added, “We are Negroes,” the employee said the invitation didn’t extend to them.

In a 2015 interview with WCPO, Spencer said the young woman added sheepishly, “I don’t make the rules.”

“I told her, ‘I know you don’t, honey,'" Spencer recalled. "'But I’m going to find out who does.’”

‘You’ve got to be unafraid’

A guard brandishing a gun banned Spencer and her children from the front gate on July 4, 1952.

Edward Spencer said he remembers being turned away from Coney Island several times, but he doesn't recall being upset about it.

"It never really struck me that I was being dismissed but that I was following along with my mom, and she had my back," he said.

With the help of the NAACP, the Woman’s City Club and others, black and white people went to Coney Island every day for a week asking for admittance.

One lawsuit eventually won African Americans the right to enter the park. It took a second lawsuit to grant them the right to swim there.

Mrs. Spencer explained her outlook to WCPO in 2015 this way: “You’ve got to have spirit. You’ve got to be unafraid. Because how else can you venture?”

Her courage continued throughout her life. Her husband died in 2010. After his death, she lived in their home in Avondale until about a year ago when she moved into an assisted living facility. When she was 94, a man pointed a gun at her and demanded her purse just outside the Kroger where she always shopped. Mrs. Spencer told her friend, Susan Noonan, that she didn't think about the danger.

When the man reached into her car to grab her purse, she grabbed the other end of it. When he wrestled it away from her and started running, she got out of her car and gave chase.

Marian Spencer in her Avondale home in 2015, looking at a photo of her and her late husband with President Barack Obama.

"She said, 'I was just so angry,'" Noonan recalled. "Her first reaction was, I'm going to get this guy. I'm going to get my stuff back."

What stood out to Noonan even more than Mrs. Spencer's courage was her unfailingly positive outlook.

"She could always find the bright side of everything," Noonan said. "She had great ideas of how to solve problems."

There were plenty of problems to solve.

Mrs. Spencer persuaded the local YWCA to open its new cafeteria and swimming pool to black and white people in the 1940s, Christenson said. She went to the 1948 national YWCA convention and introduced a policy to integrate all the organization's cafeterias, swimming pools and summer camps.

"By 1950, that was policy for the YWCA nationwide," Christenson said.

She also led a campaign to raise awareness about the industrial, toxic waste that was concentrated in minority communities. Her work resulted in local hazardous waste legislation that was adopted by other cities and later written into the national Superfund legislation.

"The local hazardous waste legislation that Marian introduced became national legislation," Christenson said. "That's pretty big impact."

Cincinnati Herald Publisher Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney's parents were lifelong friends with the Spencers. She grew up hearing about Mrs. Spencer's work and watching her impact.

Mrs. Spencer was the first woman to be elected president of the Cincinnati branch of the NAACP in 1981 and the first African American woman to be elected to Cincinnati City Council in 1983 as a member of the Charter Party. She also served as vice mayor.

"I remember when she was elected to City Council, we were so excited," Lemon Kearney said. "She brought me down to City Hall and introduced me to everybody. She was just a fantastic person."

Lemon Kearney described Mrs. Spencer as "feisty and smart" and "very loving and kind."

"She's someone that everyone trusted. Very honest," she said. "She wasn't afraid to speak out."

Yet she was able to fight in a way that built bridges, her friends said.

"She never gave up, but she never got angry," Noonan said of Mrs. Spencer. "She could tell people they were wrong with a smile on her face, and they didn't get angry because she did it in such a kind way."

Marian Spencer in her Avondale home in 2015.
Marian Spencer in her Avondale home in 2015.

Christenson said she thinks that also stemmed from the influence of Mrs. Spencer's grandfather.

"What she learned was that you have to listen to all sides and you've got to find common ground, and you've got to be polite about it," she said. "That's how she ran her whole life, and that's why she was so successful, I think."

A school, a street and a residence hall

Mrs. Spencer donated time and energy to many organizations over her long life, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Cincinnati Woman's Club, The Links, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and Planned Parenthood of Cincinnati. She also was a proud member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. and a charter member of the Cincinnati chapter of Jack and Jill of America, Inc.

Mrs. Spencer gave of her time in quiet ways, too. For roughly 10 years, she welcomed girls from Winton Hills Academy into her home, said Joe Wilmers, a retired Winton Hills Academy social worker.

Wilmers would take about half a dozen of the school's most promising students, pick up some ice cream and drive over so the girls could hear her stories and ask her questions, he said.

"Her message was about working hard, education, standing up for what is right and don't let anybody tell you that you can't do something," Wilmers said. "She's certainly the first lady of Cincinnati, and her inspiration will live forever. Not only is she a light in the darkness, but she's a full moon in terms of energy and positive things."

Cincinnati institutions have bestowed many of their highest honors on Mrs. Spencer.

Her awards include the Brotherhood Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews and the YWCA Career Women of Achievement Award. The Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber named her a “Great Living Cincinnatian” in 1998 and gave the honor to her husband in 2005.

Cincinnati Public Schools renamed a Walnut Hills elementary school the Donald A. and Marian Spencer Education Center. Cincinnati City Council renamed part of Walnut Street at The Banks “Marian Spencer Way.” The UC Foundation named Mrs. Spencer the 2018 William Howard Taft Medal for Notable Achievement honoree. The University of Cincinnati also named a new residence hall “Marian Spencer Hall” last year. That was particularly meaningful because Mrs. Spencer wasn't permitted to live in campus dorms as a student at UC.

"She couldn't stay there, but now there's a dorm named after her," Lemon Kearney said. "The world has changed, and a big part of it here is because of her and people like her."

UC President Neville Pinto issued a statement Wednesday after learning of Mrs. Spencer's passing.

"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," he said. "Her example will inspire generations to come."

The Cincinnatus Association in 2015 created the Donald and Marian Spencer “Spirit of America” Awards to honor organizations that have shown a commitment to inclusion, equity and human rights and improving the quality of life for citizens through enduring contributions toward greater inclusion, diversity and equity.

Noonan helped create the award.

Marian Spencer, seated, in March 2019 with the four Winton Hills Academy students who wrote a book about her. The girls' teacher is pictured, too.
Marian Spencer, seated, in March 2019 with the four Winton Hills Academy students who wrote a book about her. The girls' teacher is pictured, too.

"We wanted to do something for the community, something that would keep this legacy in people's minds so that young people would know about it," Noonan said. "It's basically to celebrate organizations that promote diversity and inclusion. And that's what Marian wanted."

Even with all those accolades, Mrs. Spencer treated the book by the four Winton Hills students as an honor just as important as any other.

She gave each young girl a hug and kiss and gave them some important advice the first time she met them in December 2018: “When something is wrong, you have to be brave enough to stand up and do the right thing.”

Mrs. Spencer is survived by sister Mildred Malcolm; son Donald Andrew Spencer, Jr.; son Edward Alexander Spencer and his wife, Priscilla Regalado; grandson Matthew Spencer; grandson Oliver Spencer and his wife, Davina Spencer; great grandson Emmanuel Brockman; niece Camille Haamid; and many loving cousins, nieces, nephews, grand nieces and grand nephews.

Her family is planning a private family funeral.

A public memorial celebration of Mrs. Spencer's life will be held 3 p.m., Aug. 10, at University of Cincinnati's Fifth Third Arena.