Editor’s Note: Marian Spencer died July 9, 2019.
When Marian Spencer started attending the University of Cincinnati in 1938, she—as an African-American—wasn’t allowed to live on campus because of her skin color. Eighty years later, the university’s newest dormitory was named Marian Spencer Hall in her honor and this month welcomes its first batch of students for fall classes. Spencer, a renowned civil rights pioneer who recently celebrated her 98th birthday, says she’s just happy to have lived long enough to see the change.
Being barred from UC’s on-campus housing is far from the only form of discrimination Spencer has faced. She was just 8 years old when hooded Ku Klux Klan members marched in the streets of Gallipolis, Ohio, where her family lived with her grandfather, a freed slave from West Virginia. She watched the Klan members march from the second-story balcony of her grandfather’s house. “We saw these folks walking with lights over their heads and wearing white sheets over their bodies,” Spencer remembers. “Dad said to me and my twin sister Mildred, ‘Look at these people, girls…. They’re white men who are doing wrong. You don’t have to be afraid.’ ” From that moment, she didn’t fear injustice. Instead, as her son Donald Spencer Jr. says, she met power with power to fix it.
At 13 years old, Spencer joined the NAACP with her parents, two brothers, and sister. She would become a lifelong member of the organization, helping to begin the desegregation of Cincinnati Public Schools in 1974 and serving as the first female president of the Cincinnati chapter in 1981—a goal she says her 13-year-old self expected to achieve. “Everywhere I saw [segregation] I questioned it,” says Spencer, who also helped integrate YWCA programs throughout the country in 1950. And while she’s known for being the first African-American woman elected to Cincinnati City Council in 1983, Spencer’s proudest achievement stems from her efforts to give children a voice.
In February 2017, Marian Spencer gifted UC a collection of papers she and her late husband Donald Sr. wrote about their civil rights journey. The collection includes letters, articles, notes, photographs, awards, and mementos covering 70-plus years of the couple’s fight for justice.
“Children cannot fight for themselves,” says Spencer, who in 1952 enlisted the NAACP to sue Coney Island after learning the riverside park was closed to African-Americans. Spencer’s sons Edward and Donald Jr., whom she also taught to question injustice, were 8 and 10 when a radio advertisement sparked their interest in 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.’ So I called and asked.” Spencer’s unsatisfactory phone call compelled her to take action. “I got all the black lawyers together and told them that we had to do something about this, and that was when we filed suit.” Three years later, Spencer’s sons could finally enjoy the rides and picnic grounds at Coney Island that had been enjoyed by white children for more than 65 years. “Those normal recreational operations that were there for children should never be withheld from them, certainly not my children,” she says. The park’s Sunlite Pool and Moonlite Gardens weren’t desegregated until 1961.
Earlier this year, UC also recognized Spencer’s lifelong fight for justice by presenting her the William Howard Taft Medal for Notable Achievement alumni award, the university’s highest honor. Peter Landgren, president of the UC Foundation and co-chair of UC’s Naming Committee, says both accolades are “a well-deserved recognition of Spencer’s impact, not just on this city, but in civil rights and the drive for inclusion across our country.” Even as she approaches a century of life, Marian Spencer continues to impact others with her infectious laugh and honest confidence. She’ll proudly tell you that she’s never missed a vote—and then joke about not having many voting opportunities left. But she says she’ll continue fighting the good fight. “As long as I’m here and have breath in my body, I’ll be doing what I say I do—I’ll try to change anything that I see that’s wrong.” And that’s all anyone could ask for.