Donald and Marian Spencer: Lives of Love and Social Justice

By:  Sam Whittaker, History Department Intern

Donald and Marian SpencerThe Archives and Rare Books Library recently received a new collection of papers from Marian and Donald Spencer.  For over fifty years, the Spencers fought for educational equity and equal rights with organizations such as the NAACP, the U.S. Commission on Human Rights Ohio Board, and the Cincinnati Board of Education. While processing the papers of Marian and Donald Spencer, I learned a vast amount about their groundbreaking electoral campaigns, keynote speeches, court cases, and community boards. However, I also came to know them as people. Donald and Marian Spencer met while they were both students at the University of Cincinnati, married in 1940, and raised two boys. They spent a great deal of their nearly 70 years of marriage in Cincinnati fighting for social justice and equality in the community.

Campaign Event for Marian Spencer

One could scarcely write about the civil rights movement in Cincinnati without first examining the Spencers’ public lives.  Marian led the fight to desegregate Cincinnati’s Coney Island Amusement Park, filing a lawsuit against the park after her children were denied admission in July of 1952. She became the first African American Woman elected to Cincinnati’s City Council and worked with the Cincinnati Board of Education to desegregate area schools. The collection at ARB contains a wealth of information on both Marian’s City Council campaigns and work to implement the Bronson v. Board of Education of the City of Cincinnati legal decision to desegregate area schools.

Donald and Mairan SpencerMeanwhile, Donald led the fight to keep Krohn Conservatory free for the citizens of Cincinnati in the 1990s. He worked tirelessly with Cincinnati Parks to ensure all Cincinnatians had access to greenspaces and sought to improve the city’s park system.  The papers at the Archives and Rare Books Library include documentation of the Spencer’s other work too including Marian’s efforts with the U.S. Commission on Human Rights Ohio Board, her time as President of the NAACP of Cincinnati, Donald’s service with Ohio University, and their joint election lawsuit against the Ohio Secretary of State in 2004.

Their public lives of service deservedly earned the Spencer family plaudits in the local press and recognition at a variety of awards ceremonies and honorary programs. The City of Cincinnati named a downtown street in honor of Marian while Eden Park features the Donald Spencer Overlook. However, their public Whatch Doin' Now, a musical comedy performed by the Quadreslives are only one half of the Spencer story. As I processed the Spencer papers, I learned about the personal lives of Donald and Marian including Donald Spencer’s hobby of song writing, which of course had a connection to civil rights at the University of Cincinnati.  While a student at UC, Donald composed two musicals for the Quadres, a group he was instrumental in organizing.  The Quadres was an African American student organization known for their yearly musical productions that sought to aid the social lives of black students on campus.  When Quadres was established at UC in the mid-1930s, most student groups at the University barred black students, but the students involved in Quadres sought to change that and encouraged high scholarship, and promoted integration on campus.

Donald did not stop composing after college.  He later wrote loving, original Spencer Composition - Wonderful Wifesongs for Marian and their children. Some of his original compositions are contained in this collection.

In 1998, Marian and Donald hosted an event at the Cincinnati Art Museum where Donald’s songs were performed. Donald wrote that he hoped to produce the music “one more time…before my children or I toss it into a trash can.” Well, Donald’s original music did not end up in the trash can. It is preserved here at the University of Cincinnati Rare Books and Archives library. Donald’s music is just one example of the type of information contained in the Spencer papers that provides a window into the more private lives of the Cincinnati civil rights icons.

To view finding aids for the Marian and Donald Spencer papers at the Archives and Rare Books Library, see:  To view or to learn more about this collection and other collections related to civil rights, email the Archives and Rare Books Library at, call us at 513.556.1959, visit us on the 8th floor of Blegen Library, or check out our Facebook page at