Spencer: Showing a City How To Do the Right Thing


Photograph by Jonathan Willis

They’ve been called Cincinnati’s “first couple of civil rights,” and it’s a title they never stopped earning. Donald and Marian Spencer (right) met as college students at the University of Cincinnati in the 1940s and married shortly after graduation. He worked for 18 years as a math teacher for Cincinnati Public Schools; she stayed home with their sons, Donald Jr. and Edmund. In the summer of 1952 the Spencer kids were watching The Uncle Al Show when they learned that the kiddie show host would be making an appearance at Coney Island. The boys wanted to go. Marian called the amusement park and was told that “negroes” were not permitted inside. It vaulted her—and the city—into the nation’s growing battle over civil rights. She organized a protest, and on July 4, took her children to the park and tried to get in. Turned away by an armed guard, she filed a lawsuit against Coney Island and won. With that, the park was integrated.

The Spencers’ efforts—and their “firsts”—continued. Donald eventually formed his own real estate company. He became the first African-American trustee at Ohio University, and in 1986, was the first African-American broker to join the Cincinnati Association of Real Estate Brokers. Marian was the first African-American woman to be elected—in 1983—to Cincinnati City Council and the first female president of the local NAACP chapter. They put their shoulders to the wheel championing causes such as equal housing and school desegregation, and in their 80s successfully sued the state of Ohio over a plan to place “challengers” in polls during the contentious 2004 election, arguing that the effort was calculated to intimidate black voters.

When Donald Spencer died in 2010, he and Marian had clocked 69 years as man and wife. That’s one for the record books, too. [Editor’s Note: Marian Spencer died on July 9, 2019]

Facebook Comments