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Marian Spencer Was Cincinnati's Fearless Warrior For Civil Rights

marian spencer
Courtesy of the University of Cincinnati
Marian Spencer died in hospice care Tuesday, July 9, 2019. She was 99 years old.

On Sunday, June 27, on what would have been Marian Spencer's 101st birthday, a statue of the local civil rights leader will be unveiled at Smale Park. Even in death, Spencer continues to break barriers, as her statue will be the first named woman's statue in Cincinnati. Upon her passing on July 9, 2019, WVXU's Howard Wilkinson, a friend of Spencer, wrote this remembrance of her remarkable life. 

Cincinnati could not have asked for a better mother figure than Marian Spencer.

Or a more fearless fighter for justice.

And, in many ways, as a journalist who became close to her over the years, she was something of a second mother to me, as well.

Kind and caring to all she met, she had an infectious smile that could light the city. But when she saw injustice – when she saw people's civil rights being trampled – those smiling eyes turned into burning coals, and she would fight like a tiger to make things right.

I saw that side of Marian many times. And many more times, I could sense it when she would call me on the telephone, angry over a perceived injustice in Cincinnati and imploring me to act.

Howard, you must do something about this, she would say. This cannot stand.

And oftentimes, I would try to right the wrong, but the fact was, Marian Spencer was much more effective than I was.

As a civil rights activist, she had no peer in Cincinnati, except perhaps the man both she and her late husband Donald admired so much – the late Theodore M. Berry, the first African American mayor of the city.

She was the first African American woman elected to Cincinnati City Council. The first woman to head the local chapter of the NAACP. The leader of a movement in the 1950s to integrate Coney Island and later, the park's swimming pool. And so much more.

She was indefatigable, an unstoppable force of nature, a human hurricane who could blow through whatever stood in her way when she believed there was wrong-doing going on in our city.

Her long journey came to an end July 9, 2019, when she passed away in hospice care at the age of 99.

"She was fearless,'' said Cincinnati Council Member David Mann, a longtime friend of Mrs. Spencer who served with her on council in the 1980s. "She has a sense of right and wrong. And she was not going to be denied."

Marian Spencer might have been small in physical stature; most of the politicians she dealt with as adversaries and allies over many decades towered over this tiny woman.

But Mrs. Spencer, the granddaughter of a freed slave who taught her to never back down in the face of injustice, was a giant in the history of civil rights in Cincinnati, a figure whose influence has been felt since the 1940s in nearly every significant struggle for human rights.

Her life was one of firsts: the first African American woman to be elected to Cincinnati City Council in 1983 and the first woman to head the Cincinnati chapter of the NAACP. When there was a crisis in Cincinnati, when there were people whose rights she believed were being trampled, Mrs. Spencer – along with her husband, Donald, who passed away in 2010 at the age of 95 – were first on the scene. They had been married 70 years.

In 1972, she played a major role in the NAACP action to desegregate Cincinnati Public Schools. In 1973, she ran – though unsuccessfully – for the Cincinnati school board. Eight years later, she became president of the local NAACP, and in 1983 was elected to her one and only two-year term on City Council.

Mrs. Spencer grew up as a mixed-race child in the Ohio River town of Gallipolis, a town with strong cultural ties to the South. She lived with her grandfather, and the two of them often saw the Ku Klux Klan marching down the main street of their hometown.

"I was taught well,'' Mrs. Spencer told me some years ago. "I was taught that you could not stand by and let injustice stand. You had to fight, tooth and nail."

marian spencer
Credit Courtesy of The University of Cincinnati
In 1983, Spencer ran for City Council and won. As a member of the NAACP, she was particularly interested in voter registration.

Four years ago, she was the subject of a biography written by her friends Dorothy Christensen and Mary Frederickson. It had an appropriate title: Keep on Fighting: The Life and Civil Rights Legacy of Marian A. Spencer.

One thing that is not often thought of in regard to Mrs. Spencer, a loyal member of Cincinnati's reform-minded Charter Committee, is the number of people involved in politics and civil rights who were influenced by her and look to her as a mentor and inspiration.

Gwen McFarlin, the chairwoman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, worked on Mrs. Spencer's 1983 campaign for City Council.

Years later, Mrs. Spencer counseled McFarlin when she wanted to run for Springfield Township trustee – a job she ran for and won, becoming the first African American trustee in that township.

"She was my mentor when I first started," McFarlin said. "She made me understand just how important this is and how much of an impact you can have on people's lives. She taught me to always try to be a force for good.

"The energy that she had, the tenacity that she had to make things right, was amazing,'' McFarlin said. "How could you not be inspired by that?"

She graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 1942, where she met and married Donald, also a UC student. The couple had two sons, who survive their mother.

marian spencer
Credit Courtesy of The University of Cincinnati
While at UC, Spencer, second left, was active in a group Donald founded known as Quadres. It was an African American student organization known for its yearly musical productions that sought to aid the social lives of Black students on campus. When Quadres was established at UC in the mid-1930s, most student groups at the University barred Black students, but the students involved in Quadres sought to change that and encouraged high ideals and scholarship, and promoted integration on campus.

Here is a personal story that tells something of what kind of people Marian and Donald Spencer were.

I was often a house guest at their home in Avondale. It sat on a busy street and each night, cars would run up and down, with people throwing trash out of the car windows.

Well into their senior years, Marian and Donald could be seen around the crack of dawn, walking up and down the street with trash bags and pointed sticks, picking up the litter.

"This is where we live,'' Mrs. Spencer said. "We can't have it look like that."

Nearly every year around Christmas, the Spencers, knowing that I was a single fellow, would invite me to spend Christmas day at their home with their family.

They did not want me to be lonely on Christmas day.

I always thanked them profusely and explained that my family was in Dayton and that I was going there to spend Christmas. Uncle Howard was expected to be there.

But often, on the way home on Christmas night, I would stop at their home for coffee and Christmas cookies for a while.

They treated me like another son. And I felt like part of the family.

You never forget people as kind and loving as that.

This article was first published July 10, 2019.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.