Tony J. Spencer and his wife Vivian Gist Spencer were featured speakers at Chesapeake High School's Black History Month Celebration on Feb. 7.
Tony is a vocalist, artist and model, with a diverse resume, and his wife is a budding playwright and retired educator.
Tony began his presentation to students with a description of local black history including his family's legacy in Anne Arundel County.
As the great-great-grandson of James Spencer, born in 1815, Tony's familial legacy is intertwined with Anne Arundel County. He explained to students that although his second great-grandfather was born free, he had to obtain a Certificate of Freedom, which he accomplished in Annapolis in 1839. Tony said the certificate was akin to a driver's license; he "had to carry it with him at all times."
In 1845, James founded Freetown, one of the largest communities of free African-Americans outside of Annapolis. The first piece of land he purchased was 56 acres near Marley Creek. He spent $2,000 on the land, today's equivalent of nearly $200,000.
James also served in the Union Army U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War. By the late 1800s, he had amassed nearly 1800 acres of land in Glen Burnie and Pasadena, which Tony says was exceptional by the standards of that day and time.
Tony encouraged students to "know your history, know the impact your family had" on the world around them.
Born and raised in Glen Burnie, Tony graduated from Northeast High School and earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Sojourner-Douglass College in Baltimore.
He described his career to students which includes being a butler on Gibson Island, a soldier in the Marine Corps, a boat builder, maintenance man, the first black paramedic in Anne Arundel County, as well as a model, recording artist, actor and visual artist.
His current art exhibit "Trybe-All" is at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts and will be displayed until May 10.
Tony also addressed racist incidents that have occurred at Chesapeake in recent months.
"There's something wrong that needs to be changed," he said, adding "you have bullies in your school."
He then explained how bullies use others to intimidate and target people who are different in an attempt to make themselves feel better.
"Having come from five-and-a-half free generations, born, raised and educated here, I know (what) it felt like, and even still feels like, when confronted with racist acts," he said.
Tony said his method for dealing with racism is to look ahead toward his mission which is "to encourage others to accept the challenge of being leaders and live an intentional and purposeful life."
Tony hopes his discussion will encourage students to be independent thinkers. He believes the problematic incidents at Chesapeake will shift when the administration and staff "live up to the mission of the Anne Arundel County Public School System."
When Vivian stood before the group, she asked for a student volunteer to read lines from the August Wilson play "Fences;" she selected the only person in the room to willingly come forward — freshman Brett Jacobs.
Vivian exhibited her acting prowess as she and Brett read from a dramatic scene in the play: the main character, "Troy," reveals to his wife, "Rose" he impregnated another woman.
Fellow students in the audience who were previously indifferent, became animated with laughter and applause as the two people before them brought the scene to life.
With sentiment and power, Vivian read through the lines as though she had time to memorize them.
Embracing her role as "Rose," Vivian quipped angrily "you ought of stayed upstairs in my bed where you belong;" audible gasps were heard from students. Brett retorted sternly, "we can talk this out, come to an understanding."
Despite the magnitude of the topic being discussed, Brett displayed maturity and humor, progressing through the reading with ease despite having no acting experience.
Prior to the reading, Vivian decided to focus her discussion on Wilson, a world-renowned African-American playwright, to educate the student audience by giving them "a new piece of knowledge about an important person in the African-American community."
No stranger to Wilson, Vivian wrote her Ph.D. dissertation about him and has acted in "Fences," and other plays, with theater groups in Maryland and Washington, D.C.
She believes his body of work is relevant, depicting "life for African-Americans over an entire century."
A retired professor of English and Theatre Arts, Vivian earned a doctorate in English Language and Literature from the University of Maryland and a Master of Arts in Communications/Theatre from the University of Illinois, Chicago.
She taught for 18 years in public secondary schools in Chicago and for 29 years at Anne Arundel Community College. She teaches African-American Literature at the O'Malley Senior Center in Odenton.
Spencer also works with her husband on projects including a recent play she wrote and directed titled “Emancipation Continues: War and Peace."
Vivian and Tony were two of several African-American community leaders invited to speak to students at the celebration organized by media specialist Geraldine Cvetic.
She called the Spencers, and fellow presenters, "great leaders in Anne Arundel County."
Cvetic invited individuals whom she believed had "something unique to enrich the lives of our students and staff by helping them to better understand black history and culture." She's hoping the presentation awards students a healthy perspective and appreciation for African-American culture.
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