Legislator, educator. Spencer was born in Charleston on October 23, 1850, the eldest son of James A. Spencer, a porter, and his wife, Ellen Blondeau. The Spencers were free persons of color. Spencer’s father was literate and a leader of Charleston’s black Catholics.
Spencer acquired a good education, and, like his parents, he was a practicing Catholic. In 1870 he was a schoolteacher in Marion County. In 1872 he lived in Columbia, where he was chief clerk in the office of the South Carolina Land Commission. Again a schoolmaster, he represented Abbeville County in the state House of Representatives from 1874 to 1876. A contemporary said that Spencer “looks with an Evil eye on any exclusive works for the Negroes since he wants all blacks & whites to stand on an equal footing.” He introduced and worked for legislation to improve funding for public education.
Spencer returned to Charleston in 1877. After working briefly as a porter, he was employed for a quarter-century as a messenger and then a clerk in the U.S. Lighthouse Engineer’s Office. In 1875 or 1876 he married Ella Walton, a Charleston dressmaker (her family name appears as “Wragg” in some records). They had ten children, three of whom died in early childhood. The Spencers were members of St. Peter’s Church, established in 1867 by Bishop Patrick Lynch as a parish for African Americans. Spencer became the principal black Catholic leader in Charleston. He was resolute in his conviction that blacks and whites should be treated equally in church. Denied membership in the white-dominated Charleston branch of the Catholic Knights of America, he organized a separate chapter for blacks. In 1888 Bishop Henry P. Northrop asked white Catholics to attend only segregated parishes, to which Spencer responded by asking the bishop if blacks were to be excluded from white churches. His actions galvanized African American parishioners in efforts to resist strict segregation in the church.
Spencer played a leading role in the national black Catholic lay congresses held from 1889 to 1894. He presided over the third congress in Philadelphia in 1892, making an impassioned plea for education and saying that no more churches for blacks need be built but that schools were needed: “[T]he Catholic Church has . . . no more sacred mission from its ruler and its God than to educate this race and lift it to spiritual and social liberty.” He was president of the fourth Catholic lay congress, held in Chicago in 1893. There he deplored the establishment of special churches for blacks, which “had proven itself detrimental to the faith as the opportunity is thus offered for discrimination, thereby disturbing the peace and unity of the Church and destroying charity among her members.” The Negro Catholic congresses were important in giving black Catholics a voice and a sense of unity and pride. They resulted in the founding of St. Peter Claver’s Catholic Union, a national organization to promote churches, schools, and orphanages for blacks, and Spencer served as its first treasurer.
In his later years Spencer developed Bright’s disease. He died in Charleston on July 27, 1911, and was buried in the Humane & Friendly Society Cemetery, Charleston.
Davis, Cyprian. The History of Black Catholics in the United States. New York: Crossroad, 1990.
–––. “The Holy See and American Black Catholics. A Forgotten Chapter in the History of the American Church.” U.S. Catholic Historian 7 (spring/summer 1988): 157–81.
Spalding, David. “The Catholic Negro Congresses, 1889–1894.” Catholic Historical Review 55 (October 1969): 337–57.