Parent’s values served Marshalltown woman well

Editor’s Note: February is Black History Month. In an effort to recognize the contributions of Marshall County’s black population, Times-Republican Staff and Features Reporter Mike Donahey is featuring a current or former black resident each Sunday through the month.

At 88, Ada Spencer’s handshake is firm.

Her voice is steady and she has a hardy laugh.

A visit with her is to get a glimpse of Marshalltown’s past – some of which now only exists in black-and-white photos, newspaper clippings, old city directories and in other’s memories.

Through her words, one learned about pre-civil rights Marshalltown and of times leading up to and following World War II.

She was part of the “Greatest Generation,” former newscaster and author Tom Brokaw’s description of those who fought in World War II or worked on the home front.

Her parents – Bessie and James Spencer – instilled in her

the belief anything was possible, provided she prepared herself for life’s challenges.

Being prepared included obtaining an education and gaining experience.

Ada Spencer attended Marshalltown community schools from elementary through high school.

And it was in school Ada Spencer said prejudice reared its ugly head.

While Ada Spencer acknowledged it existed, she did not dwell on the subject.

She talked of it matter-of-factly.

“It was a fairly happy experience,” she said of school. “And after you get to fifth grade, you realize that school is school … that you are not there to have a good time … you are there to learn. And there were experiences that were not the greatest … because of being of a black family …”

She reasoned prejudice was exhibited by some because of a lack of education.

“There were kids that called me different kinds of names,” she said.

But there were many good times too.

During the course of a nearly one hour conversation, she frequently recalled registering for a school term, of grades completed and being escorted, when necessary, by older siblings.

She attended Arnold Elementary School at South 7th and West Linn Streets – razed years ago and now a playground.

After high school finding work was difficult, she said.

“I’m not ashamed of it … it was honest … I did housework for many years,” she said.

When World War II started she moved to Dayton, Ohio and worked at Wright Field (now Wright-Patterson Air Force Base) during the conflict’s duration.

She returned to Marshalltown at war’s end and resumed housekeeping.

A 23-year stint at Fisher Controls followed while she moonlighted evenings at the Marshalltown YMCA-YWCA.

She retired from Fisher Controls but believed there was more to contribute.

The ever busy woman embarked on another career, this time with Marshalltown’s Foster Grandparent Program, a United Way funded agency. There, she worked with special and exceptional needs children in the Marshalltown Community School District.

An injury sidelined her, and she is not sure if she can return.

Other fond memories centered around church and home.

The family attended the First Colored Presbyterian Church at 504 E. Boone Street, then one of four churches that served the African-American population.

“I remember them well,” she said. “They were Reverends Nelson, Maxwell, Parks and Cess.”

A Marshalltown native, she was the sixth oldest of 11 children.

Her parents moved to Marshalltown from Alabama.

Bessie Spencer was a homemaker who took in other’s laundry to supplement family income.

James Spencer worked as a fireman for Iowa Electric Light & Light Co., 27 years before opening his own electrical shop behind the family home at 607 S. 6th St.

“My parents were very wise,” she said.