Tuesday, November 07, 2000

At 80, Spencer still won't quit

        Marian Spencer had an 80th birthday and hip surgery this year. Still, she sets a brisk pace, talking all the while. I fumble with my notebook as we walk, hoping to get it all. Not a chance. There is too much.

        She probably — no, surely — wonders what I have in mind when I ask her to sit down with me “to talk.”

        In truth, I have no real plan. I just want to know why she keeps going. She could rest on her considerable laurels. Instead, she has thrown herself into another campaign. One more in a lifetime series.

        Integrating Coney Island in 1952: “I couldn't have my boys growing up thinking everybody else could do something they couldn't. If you let this stand, you are telling them they are less than other children.”

        So, she demanded to buy a ticket. “I was not unafraid,” she says. “My heart beat very, very fast.”

        President of the Woman's City Club in 1971: “These women knew when their husbands were wrong, and they got together and worked on them.”

        The first black woman elected to Cincinnati City Council, in 1983, she lost a bid for re-election two years later. “What they said about me — behind my back — was, "Marian Spencer is blacker than she looks,' and they were right.”

        The light-complexioned granddaughter of a freed slave who could read and write and play several musical instruments, she says “he gave his family this basic belief that we could succeed.” He told them education was the key. That, and standing up for their rights.

        “My dad and his brother joined the Army and were sent to officers' training school,” where Mrs. Spencer's father was honorably discharged because of health problems.

        “A white officer called Uncle Roy the unforgivable name. My uncle knocked him down and was given a dishonorable discharge. In our family, we considered both discharges honorable.”

        She got her education at a high school in Gallipolis, where “my daddy and my grandfather paid for lawyers” to force the high school to take black students. Then she came to the University of Cincinnati in 1938 — to find that black students were not allowed to attend dances. Or, indeed, to live on campus.

        “So, naturally, I worked to get that changed.”


No afternoon nap
               Active in the Bronson desegregation suit against the Cincinnati Public Schools during her tenure as president of the NAACP chapter here, Mrs. Spencer and her husband, Donald, have been working to pass the school levy that appears on the ballot today. And I mean working. Signing people up to vote. Going door to door. On Fountain Square at noon time.

        She honors the lesson of her grandfather. Education. She is determined to hand this “key” to as many children as she can. “White and black,” she says firmly.

        And so she will get up from the table after our lunch. Instead of a nap, she will drive past some crumbling schools to get downtown. There, she will join her husband in whipping up support for the school levy — she on her 80-year-old feet with her brand new hip.

        And the reason she keeps going, she tells me, is very simple.

        Because there still is work to be done.

        E-mail Laura at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call (513) 768-8393.


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