A lawyer, civil rights activist and Evanston’s first African American woman alderman, Mayme Finley Spencer (1921-2011) passed away Feb. 8, only three weeks shy of her 90th birthday. A wife, mother and attorney, she was fondly known to many as Auntie Mayme for her work as a family and real estate lawyer and friend to the underdog.
But unlike the Auntie Mame of musical theater. This Auntie Mayme was "a lawyer of a well-trained tongue," who accomplished things "without fanfare," said her daughter Karen, citing scripture from Isaiah.
A quiet woman, Mayme Spencer knew how to speak up when civil rights reforms were on the line, as she did during her time as the City’s Fifth Ward alderman, 1963-1968. Last week’s City Council resolution recognized Mrs. Spencer as "a civil rights activist" who was a key figure in bringing about the City’s open-housing ordinance in May 1968.
"She was a woman before her time," said Delores Holmes, current Fifth Ward alderman.
While Ald. Spencer pushed for desegregated schools and hospitals, she focused primarily on open housing as Evanston’s "most serious area" of racial discrimination. In a family interview from 2009 now on YouTube, Mrs. Spencer recalled how different Evanston was back in the 1960s, when blacks were "caged in in a small area" of the City. That changed with open housing, she said, because "you could live anywhere you could afford to buy."
Elected to a two-year term in 1963, Ald. Spencer was re-elected in 1965 to a four-year term. However, in July 1968 – just two months after the fair-housing ordinance was passed – she resigned her seat, saying she no longer lived in the Fifth Ward. She and her husband, Dr. Warren F. Spencer (1921-87), moved out of a mostly black neighborhood to 1510 Asbury Ave. This move no doubt reflected new possibilities under Evanston’s open housing policy, but it also ended her career as an alderman.
Her old house at 1107 Garnett Place was where the Spencers had brought up their four daughters: Clothield Miller, Wendy Michelle Spencer, Karen Kelly and Shelley Fitzsimmons. That house had been close to the children’s school on Noyes Street and near their church, the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, where friends and family came to celebrate her life Saturday before burial at Sunset Memorial Gardens.
The old house was also only a few doors away from her political opponent in the 1965 aldermanic election, Josephine Edens Robinson. Although Mrs. Robinson was a native Evanstonian and enjoyed the backing of her family’s Robinson Bus Company and Better Cabs Assn., Mayme Spencer took nine of 11 precincts that year. Fifth-Ward voters knew whom they wanted.
Mrs. Spencer was born in Milwaukee and grew up there. After graduation from Marquette University, she moved to Chicago to work as a histology lab technician at Mt. Sinai Hospital. In 1952 she married Dr. Spencer and in 1957 moved to Evanston, her husband’s hometown, where his parents, John and Osceola Outlaw Spencer, still lived.
In 1961 she earned a degree from Chicago-Kent College of Law and soon joined the Stewart and May law firm, whose offices were at 1310 Hartrey Ave. in the same building as her husband’s medical practice.
Dr. and Mrs. Spencer worked in tandem as parents and concerned citizens. While she was campaigning in the City Council for open housing, he was president of the Evanston branch of the NAACP, organizing sit-ins and picket lines against realtors who steered black home-seekers away from white neighborhoods.
She was active in the PTA at both Noyes and Foster schools. She was a Democrat and a member of the League of Women Voters, the NAACP, the ACLU, the Evanston Human Relations Council and the Illinois Citizen Committee for Freedom of Residence. In 1971 Gov. Ogilvie appointed her to a six-year term on the Illinois Board of Regents, which oversaw Illinois State, Sagamon State and Northern Illinois universities. When Daniel Walker was governor, she joined the Illinois Commission on Race Relations.
Even these last few months, Mayme Spencer continued to live as a fiercely independent woman. She was still driving her car, still living at 1510 Asbury and still practicing law from her home office. "Clients were calling her right up to the day she died," said son-in-law Patrick Fitzsimmons of Evanston.
On Saturday, words of tribute from friends, family and colleagues called her fearless and loyal, private, a role model, a brainy bridge player at the Levy Center, someone who helped people every day and a modest woman with a strong moral compass.
She was also "tight with a dollar," said her daughter Shelley. Mrs. Fitzsimmons told the story of her mother, a light-skinned African American, winning at the slot machines in Las Vegas. When her father began picking up coins flying out of the machine, a woman shouted, "That black man is stealing your money." Her mother replied, "That’s my husband, and it won’t be the first time."
Showing, Mrs. Fitzsimmons said, that Mayme Spencer was not only funny but "unapologetically black."