10 Events That Shaped Cincinnati: Marian Spencer Calls Coney Island

Her sons wanted to visit an amusement park. When she picked up the phone, Marian Spencer launched her civil rights career.
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Summer, 1952: Marian Spencer Calls Coney Island

Marian and Donald Spencer with Donald Jr. in the summer of 1943.

Photograph courtesy of Marian and Donald Spencer Papers, Archives and Rare Books Library, University of Cincinnati

Marian Spencer, who will celebrate her 99th birthday this June, has spent her life questioning injustice. She’s celebrated for becoming the first African-American woman elected to Cincinnati City Council in 1983, and for helping desegregate Cincinnati Public Schools in 1972. Still, she says her proudest achievement stems from her efforts to give children a voice.

+ Cincinnati Magazine looks at 10 events that set the city on its path to today. See the full list here.

It started with a phone call. In 1952, Marian Spencer’s sons, Edward and Donald Jr., were 8 and 10 years old, respectively, when they heard a radio advertisement for Coney Island. “The kids said to me, ‘Mother, can we go to Coney Island?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, but I’ll find out,’ ” recalls Spencer, who then stepped out of her sons’ earshot to call the amusement park. “I said, ‘We’re Negroes, and I don’t want my sons to be refused,’ and the girl—she was very quiet—said, ‘I’m sorry, but they’re not open.’ And I said, ‘I’ll try to find out why.’ ” Spencer enlisted the NAACP to sue Coney Island, and over the next three years, she organized integrated marches at the park’s front gates. “Those normal recreational operations that were there for children should never be withheld from them, certainly not my children,” she says. In 1955, the NAACP won the suit, and Spencer’s sons could finally enjoy the rides and picnic grounds at Coney Island. The park’s Sunlite Pool and Moonlight Gardens were desegregated in 1961.

Spencer called Coney Island in 1952 as a concerned parent, not an activist, but that led her to fight for equal housing, education, and employment opportunities for the city’s African-American community. She’d become the first female president of Cincinnati’s NAACP chapter in 1981, and later serve as vice mayor. A downtown street and a UC residence hall would be named in her honor. And thanks to Spencer, all children can enjoy a day in the sun at Coney Island. [Editor’s Note: Marian Spencer died July 9, 2019.]

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