This is my column on Ms. Spencer upon her retirement from Worcester State College in 2010.
She passed July 7.
If, in the course of her life, Edna Spencer rubs some people the wrong way, it isn’t personal.
As she sees it, she lives her life always trying to do the right thing.
“If what you are doing is wrong, I have a responsibility to stand up and say it is wrong,” she told me shortly after retiring from her position as director of diversity and affirmative action officer at Worcester State College last month.
And she has stood up countless times as a local community activist, saying no to segregation of the city’s public schools, no to hate crimes, and no to housing and hiring discrimination.
She has served on the local chapter of the NAACP (president), the Quinsigamond Community College board of trustees (first black woman to serve), Worcester YWCA (first black woman president), and several other boards, commissions and organizations in the city.
Yet, her activism was measured by such quiet dignity that if you did not interact directly with her on the issues she tackled, you perhaps would be astonished by the breadth of her community service.
“They spoke about her as if she could do everything but walk on water,” her longtime friend Cynthia Caruthers marveled, after attending Edna’s retirement function at Quinsigamond Community College.
Perhaps the seed of Mrs. Spencer’s call to do the right thing was sown by her great grandfather, a freeman and landowner who operated a farm in Tennessee when she was too young to grasp her vulnerabilities as an African-American growing up in the cradle of the Ku Klux Klan.
As a child, she had listened to the “old folks” talk about how her great grandfather, Robert Jarrett, had organized a group of committed citizens to prevent several black men from being lynched.
She had observed how the people in her small community, for the most part both black and white, looked out for one another and shared a wonderful camaraderie. Years later those memories of her Tennessee days became a rudder for her life.
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority, one of his New Deal projects to improve people’s social and economic well being, old man Jarrett’s farm was one of those confiscated for the good of the many.
He was relocated to some “red clay” on which nothing could grow, and eventually he and many family members migrated to Worcester.
It wasn’t an easy transition for the family. Mrs. Spencer’s mom, widowed when Edna was just a newborn, died shortly after arriving here.
Robert Jarrett was 96 years old, feeble in the mind and given to wandering, when he was hit and killed by a train in the city. Still, his family nurtured his entrepreneurial spirit and persisted. Eli Hugh Jarrett, Edna’s grandfather who took her in when her mother died, owned a farm in Upton and operated a rubbish business on the city’s East Side, and an uncle had a franchise for a local gas station.
These family members were just two of the many African-American businessmen who helped create a thriving black community in the city.
“We had a thriving community, one with real camaraderie and growing political clout, and then somebody decided they wanted to improve it,” Mrs. Spencer noted sarcastically, hinting at the political machinations that led to the breakup and dispersal of Worcester’s close-knit black community.
But the measure of a person is how he or she deals with adversity, and in this sense Edna Spencer has been a figure of defiance.
The racial handcuffs of the times didn’t lock her down, didn’t prevent her from getting an education — Quinsigamond Community College and Clark University.
It didn’t prevent her from pursuing a successful career — 32 years at State Mutual Life and 15 years at Worcester State. Last month she received the key to the city, and a congressional commendation from U.S Rep. James McGovern’s office.
She is humbled, but a bit uncomfortable with the recognition.
“I don’t see myself as a champion for the community,” she said.
“I stand for what is right. That’s about it.”