In 1920 Spencer was born in the town of Gallipolis, Ohio. She lived in the home of her grandfather, a freed slave from West Virginia, with her twin sister, Mildred, two brothers, Harry and Vernon, and her parents. The home was built after her grandfather moved to Gallipolis. She became a member of the NAACP at age 13. In 1938 Spencer graduated from Gallia Academy High School. She was co-valedictorian with her sister and a member of the National Honor Society. After graduation, she moved to Cincinnati to attend the University of Cincinnati as a scholarship student with her sister and fellow scholarship student, Mildred Malcolm. While at the University of Cincinnati, Spencer campaigned for the college prom to be open to all students. That was the start of her struggle for equality for all Greater Cincinnatians. Spencer earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Cincinnati in 1942. In 1940, she married Donald Andrew Spencer, Sr., a Cincinnati teacher and real estate broker. They have two sons, Donald Jr. and Edward Alexander. They have two grandsons, Matthew and Oliver, and one granddaughter, Benita.
Coney Island lawsuit
In 1952 Spencer chaired the NAACP Legal Action vs. Coney Island, Cincinnati, Ohio. The case started when Spencer’s sons heard a radio ad inviting children to Coney Island to meet a local TV personality. She telephoned to ask if the invitation applied to all children and was assured that it did; however, when Spencer added, “We are Negroes,” the Coney Island representative admitted the invitation did not extend to Negro children. Spencer was banished from the front gate by a guard brandishing a gun on the Fourth of July, 1952. Spencer filed suit and subsequently won the case, which desegregated Coney Island.
Spencer spent her entire life as a community servant and civil rights activist, working especially hard to desegregate public schools. Spencer has been an activist for seven decades. She became a life member of the NAACP, and served on the Executive Board, as chairman of both the Legal Redress and Education committees. In 1981 Spencer became the first female president of the Cincinnati branch of the NAACP. She remains the only female president in the history of the Cincinnati branch of the NAACP. Spencer also served as chairperson of the Community Steering Committee for Indigent Defense, as chairperson of the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, and as the first African American elected president of the Woman’s City Club. She served as president of The Links, Incorporated. She was an active member of the Board of Trustees of the Planned Parenthood of Cincinnati in the 1990s and subsequently served on the Planned Parenthood Foundation Board. Spencer also served as a member of the University of Cincinnati’s Board of Trustees. In 1983, she was the first African American female elected to Cincinnati City Council and served as Vice Mayor and as a member of the Charter Party for one term. She was a delegate to the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta supporting Jesse Jackson for President. Spencer’s career included numerous achievements and many awards and honors for her contributions to human service organizations and civic volunteer work. Among her awards are: Cincinnati Enquirer Woman of the Year Award; Brotherhood Award, National Conference of Christians and Jews; YWCA Career Woman of Achievement Award; and Humanitarian Award, Freedom Heritage Foundation of Columbus, Ohio. In 1998 Spencer was named a "Great Living Cincinnatian" by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber. Her husband was awarded this honor in 2005. He was the first person to receive this award to have been married to a previous recipient. In 2006 she received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the University of Cincinnati. In 2010 the Cincinnati Public Schools renamed an elementary school in Walnut Hills, Cincinnati the Donald A. and Marian Spencer Education Center. In 2016 the Cincinnati City Council voted to rename the 100 block of Walnut Street between Theodore Berry Way and Second Street at The Banks "Marian Spencer Way."
Marian Spencer describes herself as a fighter. "All people should be equal," she said. "There should be equality, above everything. Given equal opportunity, we all arrive at the same place." Spencer successfully integrated Coney Island and the YWCA. She was recently named a Lifetime Achiever by Applause! magazine and co-chaired the YWCA's $3.8-million fund-raising campaign in Cincinnati. "Without difficulties that people met and overcome, we are less strong," Spencer said. "We've had our share."
Other legal challenges
In 2004 Marian Spencer and her husband Donald Spencer, initiated litigation seeking to restrain Defendants J. Kenneth Blackwell, in his official capacity as the Secretary of State of Ohio, Intervenor Defendant State of Ohio, the Hamilton County Board of Elections and its Chair Timothy Burke and members Michael Barrett, Todd Ward, Daniel Radford and Director John Williams in their official capacities from discriminating against black voters in Hamilton County, Ohio on the basis of race. The Spencers sought to restrain the Defendants from allowing challengers at the polls in Hamilton County.
Marian and Donald Spencer resided in Avondale, Cincinnati, a predominantly African American neighborhood. The Spencers were legally registered African American voters who voted in ward 13, precinct H. Marian Spencer estimated that one hundred percent of the voters in her precinct were African American. The Spencers alleged that the Hamilton County Board of Elections and the Hamilton County Republican Party combined to implement a voter challenge system at the polls on Election Day that discriminated against African American voters. The United States District Court For The Southern District Of Ohio Western Division granted the Spencers' motion for a temporary restraining order. US District Court Judge Susan J. Dlott, appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1995, ruled against the Republican plan, noting that there is no need to have voter challengers since Ohio already requires the presence of election judges at precincts in order to avoid voter fraud. Dlott warned in her decision that the Republican plan, if permitted, could cause “chaos, delay, intimidation and pandemonium inside the polls and in the lines outside the door.” She noted “that 14 percent of new voters in a majority white location will face a challenger… but 97 percent of new voters in a majority African American voting location will see such a challenger.” Dlott also said that the law permitting challengers did not sufficiently protect citizens’ fundamental right to vote. The Spencers were represented by Cincinnati attorney Alphonse Gerhardstein.
- Royste, Jacqueline Jones (2003). Profiles of Ohio Women, 1803-2003. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press. ISBN 0821415085.
- Guide To 20th Century African American Resources at the Cincinnati Historical Society Library website
- Google Books, Cincinnati, by Gina Ruffin Moore website
- Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber website
- Gerhardstein & Branch Co. LPA website, Order Granting Plaintiffs' Motion For Temporary Restraining Order in the United States District Court For The Southern District Of Ohio Western Division
- History Commons website
- Finding Aid for Marian Spencer papers, Archives and Rare Books Library, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio