CINCINNATI — Ohio civil rights icon Marian Spencer, of Cincinnati and formerly Gallipolis, died Tuesday evening at age 99 in hospice care, reported the Associated Press Wednesday.
Personalities across the country as well as US Senator Rob Portman have issued their condolences upon Spencer’s death.
Spencer spoke with Ohio Valley Publishing in early March 2018 about her life and youth in Gallipolis. What follows is a retelling of an article that ran in the March 4, 2018 edition of the Sunday Times-Sentinel.
Marian Spencer, 97, of Cincinnati, is well-known in the southwest corner of Ohio for having led a legal action in 1952 by the NAACP against Cincinnati’s Coney Island which would eventually result in the amusement park’s desegregation among other community activism.
She would later serve on the NAACP’s executive board and become the first woman president of the NAACP’s Cincinnati branch. She was the first African American woman elected to Cincinnati City Council. She and her husband Donald Spencer, Sr., both labored to desegregate the University of Cincinnati, according to Marian’s biographer and decades-long friend Dot Christenson, among other endeavors. Donald was an activist in his own right, tackling issues both with and apart from Marian, the writer said. Between Marian and her husband, the pair share two sons. Donald was a former chairman of the Ohio University Board of Trustees.
Despite a lifetime of achievement in Cincinnati, she was not born there. Marian is a Gallia County native. She attended Gallia Academy High School with her twin Mildred and both were recognized as valedictorians in 1938. They would eventually attend the University of Cincinnati as scholarship students.
When asked what civil service and activism meant to her, past Gallipolis resident and past Vice Mayor of the Cincinnati City Council Marian reflected on a life of fighting for equality and seeking to bring communities together.
Marian was recently honored by the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. The University of Cincinnati is set to name a dorm after her and the University of Cincinnati is set to award Marian with the William Howard Taft Medal for Notable Achievement, slated for April said Christenson.
“There were many things that went on (in Gallipolis and Cincinnati) and whenever I see something I think is wrong I speak to it,” said Marian. “A lot of people don’t. They keep quiet or speak to their friends and they share their anger. I always spoke out and never said a bad word, didn’t have to. But when I thought something need changing, I spoke about it.”
Marian said when she was a girl she remembered a man came to her house around the age of 13 in Gallipolis seeking members for the NAACP.
“We joined because Dad knew it was right and we were helping an even bigger body than Gallipolis to correct the things that were wrong,” said Marian. “He said then that ‘I and my family’ will be members of the organization.”
Marian first began her challenge to Coney Island after she called to inquire about an advertisement her family had heard inviting all children to the amusement park. She asked if all children were welcome and the answering woman responded that they were. Marian said that “We are negroes” and wanted to know if her family would be admitted if she brought them to the park. The woman responded in the negative. Marian would eventually reach out to the administration of the park and tell them she felt the park should be open to all children in the area.
“I called to all the people I knew in the city and I had mostly black women who joined me because all our children were affected by it and we set out to do what we could to make them change,” said Marian. “I got everybody together and we went up there and were refused at the gate and we filed suit and won the case.”
Marian’s grandfather, Henry Washington Walker Alexander, was a slave who, after gaining control of his life, stressed the importance of reading and education to his family. Marian remembers her father, Harry McDonald Alexander, leading her sister “Millie” and herself to the second level of their home in Gallipolis on a balcony one evening in 1928 when the Ku Klux Klan marched by with flaming torches.
“Dad said to us ‘Come and stand beside me,’” Marian said. “’You don’t have to be afraid,’ he said. ‘Those are white men under sheets who are wrong.’ We weren’t afraid of things like that because we knew they were wrong.”
Marian said she took to heart the importance of education and speaking up for children in her activism as they oftentimes “couldn’t fight for themselves” and they were lessons learned from her elders.
“We learned that there were things in life that you didn’t have to like and you didn’t have to accept,” said Marian.
Marian’s life is detailed by Christenson in the book “Keep on Fighting: the Life and Civil Rights Legacy of Marian A. Spencer.” Christenson said lately she has been writing plays based on Spencer’s experiences and is open to sharing them with performing centers or schools as they are “vital learning experiences” that should be learned by others.
Dean Wright can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2103.