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Cincinnati Students Win Big in National Writing Contest With Book Honoring Civil Rights Icon Marian Spencer

Four young students at an Cincinnati, Ohio, elementary school are now published authors after their book honoring civil rights icon Marian Spencer won first place in a national book writing competition.

Winton Hills Academy students Serenity Mills, Janyia New, Aliyana O’Neal and Nakiyah Ray worked together to write and illustrate their book “Marian Spencer: A Light in the Darkness,” which chronicles Spencer’s life and accomplishments as a fighter for social justice.

Marian Spencer

Serenity Mills, Janyia New, Aliyana O’Neal and Nakiyah Ray were recognized for their 20-page book on the life and accomplishments of Marian Spencer. (Image courtesy of WCPO)

“We’re so proud of these girls, and we know what they’re capable of,” Julie Dellecave, the girls’ fourth-grade teacher, told Cincinnati station WCPO. “[They’re] learning that working hard at something and really doing their best pays off in life. And I think that’s really an example to all of our students here.”

The young authors visited Spencer back in December to show her the book they created in her honor. They visited her again earlier this month to share the good news that their book had won the national competition.

“I expect them to do well in everything, especially in school,” Spencer, 98, told the girls’ principal after thanking each of them with a hug and kiss. “Our future is in them.”

“We will try to follow in your footsteps,” New told the seasoned activist.

In their 20-page book, the students describe Spencer’s time growing up in Gallipolis, Ohio, how her family faced intimidation by the Ku Klux Klan and that she joined the NAACP at the age of 13 in hopes of making a difference.

As a civil rights pioneer, the young activist took a stand against racial segregation in Cincinnati Public Schools and opposed the whites-only prom at the University of Cincinnati during her time time as a student there. Also highlighted in the book are Spencer’s efforts  to integrate Cincinnati’s Coney Island park and its swimming pool in the 1950s. She would go on to become the first Black woman elected to the Cincinnati City Council and also served as vice mayor.

“She has stood up a lot of times for what she believed is right,” Serenity Mills told WCPO.

The students said they chose to write their book on Spencer after Joe Wilmers, a retired Winton Hills Academy social worker, told them about her and all her accomplishments.

“We looked up things on the Internet,” Nakiyah Ray added. “What she does and what she did do back then was so great.”

Aliyana O’Neal, 9, described also described their ideas for the book, saying: “The darkness is really supposed to be the negativity. And it was showing how the KKK was so negative. And the lightness was supposed to be her positivity, shining through their negativity.”

This is the second year in a row that Winton Hills students have won the national writing contest, sponsored by Pennsylvania’s National Youth Foundation. Last year, five students won big for their book on anti-bullying.

Now, it wouldn’t be a competition without prizes. According to WCPO, each of the girls  received a $125 cash prize, which they said they plan to save. The students were flown out to Philadelphia the following week for a special awards ceremony.

As for their book, National Youth Foundation will print the story as a hardcover book and each student will get a copy, Dellecave said. The foundation will send copies to local libraries as well.

Watch more in the video below.

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