Best Of 2020

Best Civil Rights Leaders We’ll Miss: Marian Spencer and Nathaniel Jones

Cincinnati was long blessed by the long presence of — and now mourns the absence of — former Cincinnati Vice Mayor Marian Spencer, who passed away in 2019, and former federal judge and civil rights leader Nathaniel Jones, who we lost in early 2020.Spencer, who lived in Avondale, passed away last July. But her legacy will remain — concretely in the form of a section of Walnut Street downtown the city renamed in her honor in 2016 and in a wider sense through myriad contributions she made to civil rights in Cincinnati. The granddaughter of a former slave, Spencer traced her lineage back to African-American, Native American and Scottish ancestors. She came to Cincinnati with her twin sister Mildred in 1938 to attend the University of Cincinnati and stayed after marrying Donald Spencer. She received her degree in English in 1942 and had two children: Donald Jr. and Edward Spencer. It was her children’s desire to swim at Coney Island that sparked Spencer’s first big integration effort. In 1952, she organized two dozen other women to push for the desegregation of the Cincinnati water park, which at the time did not admit black people. Spencer, already heavily involved in her community, went on to become a Cincinnati City Council member and sit on the University of Cincinnati board of trustees. Internationally known civil rights advocate and Cincinnati-based former federal judge Jones died this January at the age of 93. Locally, Jones was a mentor to a number of Cincinnati political heavyweights, from Ohio Democratic Party Chair David Pepper to Mayor John Cranley to former Cincinnati City Council member and current Democracy for America CEO Yvette Simpson. Jones’ career featured many highlights and acts of courage. During his stint with the NAACP starting in 1969, Jones worked to desegregate public schools across the nation, leading to some harrowing experiences with racial violence. Later, in 1993, Jones traveled to South Africa as an observer for the country’s first democratic elections.