Cincinnati Debuts First Named Woman Statue: Pioneering Civil Rights Activist Marian A. Spencer

On what would have been her 101st birthday, Cincinnati civil rights icon Marian A. Spencer became immortalized in bronze via a new statue at Smale Riverfront Park.

Jun 29, 2021 at 4:32 pm
click to enlarge The sculpture of Marian A. Spencer, shown here before completion, now stands in Smale Riverfront Park in downtown Cincinnati. - Photo: Cincinnati Parks
Photo: Cincinnati Parks
The sculpture of Marian A. Spencer, shown here before completion, now stands in Smale Riverfront Park in downtown Cincinnati.

On what would have been her 101st birthday, Marian A. Spencer became immortalized in Cincinnati’s history when a new landmark statue honoring her life and work was unveiled in Smale Riverfront Park on Sunday. 

The statue was originally proposed in 2019 by Alice Schneider, chair of the Marian A. Spencer Statue Committee, shortly before Spencer passed away later that year at the age of 99. The Woman’s City Club had commissioned the life-sized piece in honor of Spencer, who served as its first African American president in 1972, a release from Cincinnati Parks said

In a 2019 story about Spencer's death, former CityBeat news editor Nick Swartsell wrote the following:

Spencer, who lived in Avondale, passed away last night at about 10 p.m., according to friends of the family. 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

The University of Cincinnati, Spencer's alma mater, also shared the following upon her death:

On campus, Marian and Donald Spencer initially helped upend racial segregation through the unlikely tool of musical theater. At a time when African American students were barred from many extracurricular activities, denied admission to certain majors and could not live in the dormitories, they and other African American students formed an organization called Quadres, a highly visible theater and musical group. Its impact was felt in the subsequent integration of the student newspaper, the band and the University YMCA Council.

Now rendered in bronze, Spencer remains a champion for equality, becoming the city's first statue of a named woman. Until now, Cincinnati statues have honored pioneering men or have included unnamed women; none have focused on specific, accomplished women, the Cincinnati Parks release said.

“There was no statue of a named woman in Cincinnati, so we wanted a statue of a woman who would exemplify the virtues and issues of the city and be an example to show young people how to get things accomplished,” Schneider said in the release.  

And accomplish things, Spencer did. The granddaughter of freed slaves from West Virginia, Spencer became the first Black woman elected to the Cincinnati City Council in 1983, also serving as vice mayor, according to Cincinnati Parks. As outlined in Profiles of Ohio Women, 1803-2003. Spencer was a champion for civil rights in Cincinnati, instrumental in desegregating the city’s public schools and Coney Island. Spencer was inducted into the Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame in 2010.

Even the design of the statue itself is groundbreaking. Created by local artists Tom Tsuchiya and Gina Erardi, the sculpture depicts Spencer using one hand to connect with two children while the other hand remains free. “Generations of park visitors” will be able to take Spencer’s hand and complete the circle in what Cincinnati Parks called one of the first interactive statues in the city.

The Woman’s City Club of Greater Cincinnati raised $162,000 for the statue, the press release said.