Marian grew up in Gallipolis, Ohio with her folks, two brothers and twin sister, Mildred. They resided in the home her grandfather built, using the money he was given by his owner when he was granted freedom from slavery. Her grandfather was her hero. He would get up early each morning in order to prepare a morning sermon for the household – how to live – the right things to do – what to watch out for. Marian credits him for inspiring her to be the person she became. And just who is Marian Spencer? Who is the person she became?
At age 13, she was a member of the NAACP. She was co-valedictorian (with Mildred) at high school graduation, and was a scholarship student at the University of Cincinnati where Marian campaigned for the prom to be open to all students. That was the beginning of her championing equality for all Cincinnatians. Marian’s entire life has been spent as a community servant and civil rights activist. In 1940 she married fellow UC student, Donald Spencer, the love of her life. They became partners fighting for social justice and equality in Cincinnati.
Marian was responsible for desegregating Coney Island and the YWCA. She worked diligently to desegregate public schools and was the first female president of the Cincinnati branch of the NAACP. She was the chairperson of numerous committees, such as the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, and served as a member of the Board of the University of Cincinnati. She was the first African-American female elected to Cincinnati City Council and served as Vice-Mayor for one term.
The awards Marian won – to name a few – include Cincinnati Enquirer Woman of the Year, 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, she was named a “Great Living Cincinnatian” by the USA Regional Chamber (Donald Spencer also won this award in 2005.) She has a street named after her by the Banks in downtown Cincinnati: Marian Spencer Way. A Cincinnati public school is named the Donald A. and Marian Spencer Education Center. (One would think Marian felt her beautiful marriage was the best of all “awards” – Effused Marian, “We had 70 good years, and if Donald came back today I’d marry him all over again!” Wow.
So where does Camp Joy fit into this picture? Marian and Donald had two sons, Edward and Donald Jr. The Spencers, wanting to enrich the lives of their two sons, searched for a camp for the boys to attend – an integrated camp. Joy fit the bill! They refused to have the boys participate in segregated organizations, as they were “not the right way to live.” The boys loved Joy! Marian says they both still talk about what a positive experience Joy was for them (and they are in their 70’s!) Marian recounted how they loved their Camp Leader, Rev. Maurice McCrackin, “He was a well-loved role model and second father figure. Donald and Edward noted that Camp was a training school for life and a very important part of their lives. Many of the kids had no fathers and Mac was there for them and they knew it. The children learned a lifestyle that declared all people are valuable and Mac helped them to see that. Mac was sent here by God to do a lot of good – and he did it all!”
As a result of their love for Camp Joy, Marian and Donald Spencer, became important advocates in Camp Joy’s history in the 1950s and 1960s. Initially the group that operated Joy was called the Camp Joy Committee; later it was titled the Camp Joy Board of Trustees. Marian served on the first Joy Committee and later served on the Board for many years. Often she hosted Board meetings in their lovely home in Cincinnati. Marian and Don were indefatigable trailblazers for Civil Rights. And Camp Joy benefited immensely and is indeed, grateful. Why? Back to Marian.
Camp Joy has been blessed to have such a champion of equality, such a woman of grace – beautiful inside and out – to be a strong advocate for the racially integrated philosophy Joy held– and continues to hold – so dearly today. Camp Joy is a better place because of Marian. Cincinnati is a better place…the world is a better place because of her. She is 96 years old, spry, charming, highly intelligent and still going strong with a huge, love-filled heart…and that’s who Marian Spencer is.
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(There is a biography written about her: Keep on Fighting: The Life and Legacy of Marian A. Spencer by Dorothy H. Christenson if you would like to learn more.)