Marian Spencer, Civil Rights Activist Who Helped Integrate Cincinnati’s Famed Coney Island Park Dies at 99

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A Cincinnati civil rights icon known for her work to integrate Coney Island and its swimming pool in the 1950s has died.

Marian Spencer died at 9:55 p.m. Tuesday at a hospice care center at the Twin Towers Senior Living Community in Cincinnati after she suffered a stroke on her birthday June 28, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. She was 99 years old.

Her niece, Camille Haamid, told the newspaper her aunt was “gracious all the time.”

“Some people act that way in public,” she said. “Aunt Marian was gracious and kind when she was making breakfast.”

Haamid, the daughter of Spencer’s twin sister, Mildred, said she feels like her aunt was a second mother.

“What happened to one – even a cold — seemed to happen to the other,” she said.

Mildred, who’s in hospice care in Washington, D.C., attended the University of Cincinnati with Spencer and saw her sister go on to become vice mayor of Cincinnati, the first Black woman elected to city council, according to the NBC-affiliate WLWT-TV.

Spencer was also the first woman president of the local NAACP and the first Black president of the Woman’s City Club, the news station reported.

She rose to the top leadership positions of the organizations, but when she helped desegregate Coney Island, she was head of the NAACP’s Legislative Committee, Spencer said in an interview with the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Spencer set her sights on the Ohio amusement park — which has no relation to the much better known New York district of the same name — when her then 10-year-old son Donald Jr. and her 8-year-old son Edward saw the park on TV and said they wanted to go.

Spencer waited until her children weren’t around to call the park.

“I said, ‘We’re Negroes, can we get in?’ She was very quiet and said, `No, but I don’t make the rules,'” Spencer told the Enquirer.

“I said, `I know you don’t, sweetheart, but I am going to find out who does.’ I got 25 mothers and grandmothers together in Walnut Hills, and that’s where I started the fight.”

She told the Enquirer that she built a coalition of both Black women, who joined in lieu of Black men afraid of losing their jobs, and white women from the Woman’s City Club of Greater Cincinnati.

Spencer then found Michael Turpeau, a young Black lawyer at the time, to take the case.

Even though by July 4, 1952 armed guards were chasing Spencer and her coalition away from the park gate, she didn’t give up, and the park was desegregated in 1955, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported.

Coney’s main attraction, Sunlite Pool, wasn’t integrated until 1961.

“I never felt I had to accept anything I didn’t want to,” Spencer told the Enquirer. “I didn’t accept a ‘no’ when it was wrong. It has been my responsibility to change things.”

Cincinnati leaders who knew Spencer’s work have taken to social media to send condolences and highlight her legacy.

“Thank you for your fight, zesty spirit and kind heart. We are so grateful for your service to this city,” University of Cincinnati President Neville Pinto said on Twitter.

Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley has asked the city manager to fly their flags at half-staff in Spencer’s honor.

” May she rest peacefully knowing her legacy will live on,” Cranley said.

Even in the months just before her death, Spencer pushed others to advocate for what is right, according to ABC-affiliate WCPO-TV.

The news outlet covered a ceremony for local students who documented Spencer’s life in an award-winning book, “Marian Spencer: A Light in the Darkness.”

At the ceremony, Spencer told the students:

“If I’m six feet under, and something’s going wrong up here, I’m going to say, ‘You all get busy. You’ve been quiet too long!'”

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