At 95, Marian Spencer is anything but quietly retired.
Cincinnati’s longtime civil rights advocate, voice of conscience and its first African-American woman elected to City Council came home after a summer away in Indiana and, not so quietly, entered the civic fray once again.
Spencer, who most know as a staunch city parks supporter, made it clear she was no fan of the parks levy. A new property tax, she believed, should not be codified into a Charter amendment. And she should know. Spencer had been a member of the city’s good-government Charter Committee for 75 years. Her late husband, Donald, had also been a legendary parks supporter.
Spencer’s opposition to Mayor John Cranley’s parks plan, then, made headlines and was one reason, some say, the levy failed. That kind of clout doesn’t come without a lot of preface. It’s been a long journey, said Spencer, one chronicled most recently in Dorothy H. Christenson’s “Keep on Fighting: The Life and Civil Rights Legacy of Marian A. Spencer.”
The expanded version of “Keep on Fighting” was published by for Ohio University Press. The book is widely available.
Spencer’s good-natured, optimistic personality and love for her late husband is evident throughout. He, too, was a civil-rights activist and NAACP member and civic leader, as well as a teacher and realtor. They married in 1940; he died at age 95 in 2010.
She and twin sister Mildred were born and raised in the Ohio River city of Gallipolis, where their parents – Harry and Rosanna Alexander – lived above a general/hardware store that they owned. There were also two brothers, the older Harry Jr. and the younger Vernon (known as Mac). The girls were inseparable and loved school. Their family stressed education. Gallipolis had a history of accepting black citizens, but it also had segregation.
And it had the Klan.
Not just a Southern problem
In 1928, the Ku Klux Klan marched through town, right past the store. “I’ll never forget we had a balcony on the second story,” Spencer said. “Dad took me and my twin sister to the balcony at night – we didn’t have street lights. Here were these men marching down the middle of our street with their faces totally covered, full Klan outfits, flaming tapers.
“Dad said, ‘Girls, look. These men are white men. And they’re trying to scare you. You don’t have to be afraid of them.’ ”
Their mother chose University of Cincinnati for Marian and Mildred, as they could live with a cousin in the city. They arrived in 1938. As students at UC, African-Americans faced numerous restrictions.
“Mildred and I couldn’t take swimming when we were students. We had to take modern dance,” Spencer recalls in the book. “On Friday afternoons the dance teacher would unlock the pool to give black students our only opportunity to swim on campus.” (In 1975, Cincinnati’s first African-American mayor, Ted Berry, appointed her to the UC Board of Trustees.)
She also recalls the “sundown towns” like Mariemont – suburban cities surrounded by or surrounding Cincinnati – where blacks weren’t welcome after dark.
Perhaps her greatest fight in Cincinnati involved integrating Coney Island, the “beloved” amusement park on the Ohio River. In 1952, her sons – 10-year-old Donald Jr. and 8-year-old Edward – were watching “The Uncle Al Show,” a local children’s program, when he said “Everyone come to Coney Island.”
They wanted to go.
“I went to the kitchen and closed the door and had a telephone conversation with a girl (at Coney Island),” she said in the interview. “I said, ‘We are Negroes’ and there was a long silence. Then she said, ‘I’m sorry, you can’t come. But I don’t make the rules.’ I said, ‘I know you don’t, but I’ll find out who does.”
Head of the NAACP’s Legislative Committee at the time, she convinced a young black attorney, Michael Turpeau, to take her case against Coney Island. “I said we’ve got to do something about this because children couldn’t fight for themselves,” she said.
The amusement park was owned by powerful business people, Edward Schott and Ralph Wachs, and the legal battle was tense. Black and white protesters both tried to buy admission tickets to establish the park’s pattern of intentionally barring African-Americans. Some of those were women, because men feared losing their jobs. Besides the NAACP, protesters came from the Woman’s City Club of Greater Cincinnati, where Spencer had been among the first African-American members.
“They were people in a system they didn’t like and knew was wrong, and they supported me because they knew they were fighting for their right as well as mine,” Spencer said of those women.
Although the original suit was settled in favor of integration, it only applied to the portion of Coney Island in Hamilton County. Progress was slow. The Spencers knew that all too well.
The family loved to travel America by car during the summer when Donald, a teacher for 18 years, was free. But they carried with them the Negro Motorist Green-Book, so they could plan where to stay, dine and shop.
It was frequently infuriating, as when she discovered that Salt Lake City’s Mormon Tabernacle Choir – affiliated with a major American religion – had segregated seating. She didn’t attend a concert, though her husband took the boys. “I was so angry at the fact they would have segregation out there,” she said. “It was a big deal – I didn’t want to sit in the back.”
Facing segregation strengthened her resolve to fight it. “They said if you have one drop of black blood, you’re black legally. And I thought to myself, ‘If it’s that valuable, why should I disown that?’ ”
CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: firstname.lastname@example.org