Longtime Activist and Cincinnatian Marian Spencer Will be Celebrated at a Library Lecture

In this interview, Spencer recalls fighting for civil rights at segregated local institutions and also worries that events like last year's white-nationalist march in Charlottesville show society isn't through with racism yet

Feb 6, 2018 at 1:12 pm
click to enlarge Marian Spencer in 2017 - PHOTO: Brewster Rhoads
PHOTO: Brewster Rhoads
Marian Spencer in 2017

Marian Spencer learned not to be afraid of racism when she was 8 years old.

It was a dark, warm, moonless night in 1928 and the Ku Klux Klan was marching in her hometown of Gallipolis, Ohio.

“My father took my twin sister Millie and me to the balcony on the second level of our house and said, ‘Look at them, girls. They’re marching and they’re wrong,’ ” Spencer says. “They wore white costumes and their faces were covered with white masks. And my father said, ‘Look at them. You don’t need to be afraid.’

“That’s what I always remember: You don’t need to afraid.”

The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County will honor Spencer this week as part of Black History Month. The first African-American woman elected to Cincinnati city council, Spencer is a lifelong community activist, well known locally for her fight to integrate Cincinnati’s Coney Island amusement park.

But Spencer is also a national hero. She spearheaded efforts to desegregate YWCA programs throughout the U.S. And with Fred Shuttlesworth, a prominent civil rights leader and colleague of Martin Luther King Jr., she launched a campaign to raise awareness of industrial toxic-waste practices in minority neighborhoods, which became part of national Superfund legislation.

“Her life is about social change,” says biographer Dorothy Christenson, who will discuss her book, Keep on Fighting: The Life and Civil Rights Legacy of Marian A. Spencer, at downtown’s Main Library on Saturday.

Throughout the month, the library will showcase several African-American women who chose to become leaders, notes Brian Powers, a reference librarian of local history and genealogy.

“Marian Spencer is a Cincinnati icon,” he says. “When you think of empowerment and achievement, you think of her.”

When Spencer arrived in Cincinnati to attend the University of Cincinnati in 1938, the campus had only one African-American organization. Dormitories, hotels and regular restaurants were not open to black people.

After graduation, she became the youngest president of the all-black West End YWCA. The all-white YWCA was moving to a new building with a swimming pool, which the West End Y could not afford, so Spencer started negotiating a merger of the two groups. When the new Metropolitan branch opened, she insisted the cafeteria and swimming pool be desegregated.

“Thanks to Marian, the YWCA cafeteria became the only place downtown where integrated groups could meet or eat together in public,” Christenson says.

It was her role as a parent that led to Coney Island’s desegregation.

“One day in 1952, my boys were watching the Uncle Al show on television and saw pictures of the Coney Island and the rides,” Spencer says. “My boys were 8 and 10 and they wanted to go, too. I called Coney Island and the girl who answered the phone said of course we’d be welcome. ‘But we’re Negroes,’ I told her.”

The receptionist told Spencer she was sorry, but her children would not be allowed in the park.

“I wanted to find out who had made that decision,” Spencer says. “My boys should be treated just like any other children.”

Spencer enlisted the NAACP to sue the park and organized protest marches at the gate that August.

“The national NAACP told us we needed an integrated effort, so we had well-dressed white women in hats and gloves marching with us,” she recalls. “An integrated group of ministers drove to the front gate and was pelted with dirt clods and fruit.”

The group won. Blacks could enter the park and picnic and ride the paddleboats. But because the park’s Sunlite Pool was situated in Clermont County, it remained off limits for another eight years.

Nearly 98 years old, Marian Spencer, who empowered black women and men throughout her life, keeps fighting. But she is puzzled by recent events like the white-nationalist march in Charlottesville, Va.

“I thought we were past all that,” she says, “but apparently, some people are still in another time.”

Marian Spencer: Keep on Fighting, featuring a talk by and discussion with Dorothy Christenson, is free and takes place Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Main Library. More info: cincinnatilibrary.org.