Cincinnati civil rights icon Marian Spencer dies at 99

Remembering Marian Spencer

CINCINNATI, Ohio (FOX19) - Cincinnati civil rights icon Marian Spencer who desegregated Coney Island and was the first African-American woman elected to City Council has died at the age of 99.

Spencer passed away in hospice care just before 10 p.m. Tuesday, former state senator Eric Kearney tells FOX19 NOW.

One of her two sons, Eddie, was with her at the time, he said.

J.C. Battle & Sons Funeral Home is handling arrangements, which are pending.

“Thanks to this Ohio hero, our world is in a better place. We mourn Marian Spencer’s loss but praise her incredible contribution to breaking down barriers and fighting racism," Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose said in a tweet.

Ohio Sen. Rob Portman also took to Twitter to honor the civil rights pioneer.

“Jane & I are saddened to learn about the passing of Marian Spencer, a true civil rights icon. As a granddaughter of a slave, Marian was a driving force for change in #Cincinnati, devoting much of her life to fighting for justice in our city. Her lifetime of service & activism is truly an inspiration to us all. Today, her legacy in SW #Ohio will continue on as we work to follow her example.”

Mayor John Cranley asked City Manager Patrick Duhaney to fly flags at half-staff to honor her.

Spencer dedicated her life to civil rights activism and racial equality in Cincinnati.

She became the first woman to lead the NAACP of Cincinnati as chapter president from 1980-1982 and was elected the first African American woman on Cincinnati City Council in 1983, according to her biography on the University of Cincinnati’s website.

She also served as the city’s vice mayor, represented the Ohio Democratic Party at their 1984 and 1988 national conventions and worked with the U.S. Civil Rights Commission Ohio Advisory Board, Housing Opportunities Made Equal, Planned Parenthood, and the Cincinnati Human Services Task Force.

Marian Spencer is sworn in as Cincinnati's vice mayor on Dec. 1, 1983. (Photo: Enquirer file)
Marian Spencer is sworn in as Cincinnati's vice mayor on Dec. 1, 1983. (Photo: Enquirer file)

“She was an advocate for the park system and for making the Krohn Conservatory free. For me personally, she was somebody who got me involved in politics and helped me when I was first started out in politics,” Kearney said early Wednesday.

"She was very active in the Charter Committee. She was a very feisty or a very determined person.”

Born in Gallipolis, Ohio in 1920 as Marian Alexander, she graduated as a co-valedictorian of Gallia Academy School in 1938, according to her biography.

Upon graduation, she enrolled in the University of Cincinnati and became active on campus with the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. While a student at UC, Marian met and fell in love with Donald Spencer.

The couple married in 1940, but Marian continued her studies and earned a degree in English Literature in 1942. She gave birth to two children, Donald and Edward Spencer.

Marian began her public fight for civil rights in 1952 when she led the desegregation effort at Cincinnati’s Coney Island Amusement Park, her biography states.

Her children, after hearing an ad for an event in the park, asked their mother if they could attend.

Spencer called Coney Island to inquire about the event and whether or not it was open to all children. After a representative of the park admitted that the event was not open to black children, Spencer took action.

She went with her children to Coney Island and, after being turned away by an armed guard, filed a lawsuit against the park with the help of the NAACP, her biography states.

Spencer led a biracial team of 28 witnesses to victory in the case and desegregated the park.

Marian’s accomplishments and efforts in the community earned her the Cincinnati Enquirer’s “Woman of the Year Award” in 1972.

The park released this statement Wednesday: “Coney Island extends our condolences to the family of Marian Spencer. Mrs. Spencer was a pioneer of civil rights and our community is the better for her efforts. She will always remain alive in the memories of those who loved, respected, and treasured her. We share the sorrow of her family and the Cincinnati community.”

The Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce named Spencer a “Great Living Cincinnatian” in 1998, and the city government currently honors Spencer’s contributions through the downtown street named for her, Marian Spencer Way.

In addition to her sons, Marian Spencer is survived by a twin sister and several relatives, Kearney said.

The 100 block of Walnut Street between Theodore Berry Way and Second Street at The Banks was renamed Marian Spencer Way in 2010. (Photo: City of Cincinnati Twitter account)
The 100 block of Walnut Street between Theodore Berry Way and Second Street at The Banks was renamed Marian Spencer Way in 2010. (Photo: City of Cincinnati Twitter account)

Councilwoman Amy Murray remembered Marian Spencer as “one of the most gracious women I ever knew. She was gracious to everyone.”

Murray also said Marian Spencer “is one of those women you just think are going to live forever. She just always seemed so strong, so very strong.”

“Marian Spencer’s legacy will live on forever,” said City Councilman Jeff Pastor. “As a kid at Sands Montessori I remember learning about her courageousness, fearlessness, and tireless efforts to make Cincinnati and the surrounding area a better place for all. May her memory be a blessing.”

Councilman David Mann said: “Marian was such a force in the history of our city, a champion for justice with her warm, positive personality and fearless leadership. She and I served together in council and remained friends ever since. I am saddened and will miss her.”

Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman said: "Marian Spencer made significant contributions to our city like the desegregation of Coney Island, which she was very proud of. She would want to be remembered as a devoted wife to her husband, who she affectionately called ‘Daddy’ and a committed mother to her children.

“So we are honored that her family shared her with Cincinnati and the world and she will be missed.”

Former Mayor Mark Mallory said in a statement:

"I was saddened to learn of the passing of Mrs. Marian Spencer. She was an amazing civil rights leader and trailblazer whose life work made Cincinnati a better place. As the first black female member of Cincinnati City Council, she paved the way for others to follow.

"During my years working with Mrs. Spencer, I found her to be a fierce advocate who never backed down. She was a real fighter for equality and defender of the voiceless. She would sometimes call me when I was Mayor to give me subtle nudges about things I was working on. I always made the adjustments she suggested.

“Mrs. Spencer was a strong yet gracious lady who stayed active well into her ‘90s. The Mallory family has lost a friend and Cincinnati has lost a treasure. We send our condolences to the Spencer family.”

Ohio Sen. Rob Portman said in a tweet: “Her lifetime of service & activism is truly an inspiration to us all. Today, her legacy in SW #Ohio will continue on as we work to follow her example”

“Cincinnati has lost a groundbreaking and visionary leader. Her example will inspire future generations to be community leaders and agents of change,” said Cincinnati Public Schools Board of Eduction President Carolyn Jones.

“Mrs. Spencer’s support of Cincinnati Public Schools was evident throughout her life. In 2010, CPS named a former school building after Spencer and her husband, a former CPS teacher, the Donald A. and Marian Spencer Education Center. In 2017, the building was renamed the Spencer Center for Gifted and Exceptional Students when the new magnet program was introduced. As recently as March, she was inspiring students at Winton Hills Academy, who won a national award for a book they wrote about her life titled, A Light in the Darkness. Marian Spencer’s inspiring leadership made lasting change in our community and beyond," said CPS Superintendent Laura Mitchell.

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