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Sculpture of civil rights icon Marian Spencer to be dedicated on Cincinnati's riverfront

'We want Marian to be an example'
Marian Spencer in her Avondale home in 2015.
Posted at 6:00 AM, Jun 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-25 18:29:02-04

CINCINNATI — After the coronavirus pandemic led to a year-long delay, a life-sized sculpture honoring the late Marian Spencer finally will take its place along Cincinnati’s riverfront.

The statue of Spencer interacting with two children will be dedicated and unveiled during a public ceremony at 5 p.m. Sunday, the day before what would have been Spencer’s 101st birthday.

The artwork will be Greater Cincinnati’s first statue honoring a named woman, said Alice Schneider, who proposed the statue in 2019 before Spencer died and served as chair of the committee that raised funds for the project.

“We want Marian to be an example for people,” Schneider said. “She was determined but did things in a very peaceful and forceful way – not giving up. And so we hope that that message will resonate and continue on after this statue.”

This model served as the basis for the full-size sculpture that will honor civil rights icon Marian Spencer. It shows Spencer with her arms outstretched forming a circle with a young girl and boy,
This model served as the basis for the full-size sculpture that will honor civil rights icon Marian Spencer.

Spencer was a Cincinnati Civil Rights pioneer best known for her fight to integrate Coney Island and its swimming pool in the 1950s. She died July 9, 2019, at the age of 99.

She last spoke to WCPO in March 2019 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 her 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!”

The sculpture is designed to be interactive, noted Tom Tsuchiya, who created the piece along with co-sculptor Gina Erardi. In the design, Spencer stands smiling with both arms outstretched. Her right hand clasps the hand of a little girl, and the girl’s other hand is holding the hand of a little boy.

From left, Gina Erardi and Tom Tsuchiya work on full-size forms for a sculpture honoring civil rights icon Marian Spencer.
From left, Gina Erardi and Tom Tsuchiya work on full-size forms for a sculpture honoring civil rights icon Marian Spencer. Photo taken in February 2020.

“People can join hands with the sculpture so they can hold hands and be part of Marian’s legacy,” Tsuchiya said. “And continue her civil rights fight.”

The statue of Spencer depicts her as she looked in 1984. Camille Haamid, who is the daughter of Spencer’s twin sister, modeled for the sculpture of her aunt and wore one of Spencer’s suits so the artists could capture the likeness as perfectly as possible.

She ‘made Cincinnati a better place’

The girl in the statue is a composite of the four Winton Hills Academy students who created the book about Spencer’s life. The little boy is not supposed to look like a specific person. He’ll be wearing a Cincinnati Reds ballcap and a T-shirt that says “keep on fighting,” one of Spencer’s favorite sayings.

The words “hold hands and unite” will be written at the base of the bronze sculpture, Tsuchiya said.

“It’s hard to pick favorites, but Marian’s sculpture is definitely something that I really love, and it’s definitely one of those that has a lot of special meaning,” said Tsuchiya, who also has sculpted statues of iconic Cincinnati Reds players that are displayed outside Great American Ball Park.

A worker prepares the area in Cincinnati's Smale Riverfront Park where a life-sized sculpture of Marian Spencer will be dedicated on June 27, 2021.
A life-sized sculpture of civil rights pioneer Marian Spencer will be dedicated in this spot on June 27, 2021.

“Being a Cincinnati native, growing up here and knowing how much Marian’s meant to us, and to everybody, and how she really, genuinely made Cincinnati a better place,” he said, “Marian is someone that you could say has a direct impact on my life as a person of color. So extra special.”

Plus, Tsuchiya said, he views Spencer as someone who represents “what’s good about Cincinnati.”

“I always kind of thought Cincinnati – even though it’s a city – in many ways it has a lot of qualities like, kind of like, a smaller place, like a town or village,” he said. “Everyone’s kind of connected and then she really did a tremendous job of making sure everybody gets along in our village, so to speak.”

The Marian A. Spencer Statue Fund Committee started with a goal of raising $125,000 for the project, Schneider said, and ended up with about $175,000.

“We got many donations from one dollar up to $25,000 from the Greater Cincinnati Foundation,” she said, adding that nearly 275 people and organizations contributed money for the project. “A lot of small donations from a lot of people who really were connected to Marian and who knew Marian and really loved Marian. It hit a chord with people.”

Schneider said she hopes the completed statue will continue to do just that.

“You know, it doesn’t solve any problems. It doesn’t solve any of them,” she said. “But … Marian was a good example of, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get things done. We’ll persist until we do.’ And I think that’s a good message to get out.”

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.

The Marian A. Spencer statue dedication is scheduled for 5 p.m. Sunday, June 27, 2021, at Smale Riverfront Park in Cincinnati. The public is welcome to attend.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To reach Lucy, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.