Ms. Spencer proved herself to be a brilliant, no-nonsense, and highly capable administrator who recruited Leon County’s best and brightest teachers to serve on the faculty. Known as a disciplinarian, she kept a paddle, but rarely had to use it.
“All she had to do was appear,” said the late M. Lucile Williams (principal of Bond, 1973-1981) in 1996, who taught under Spencer between 1949 and 1950. “She had things in check.” Williams said Spencer set high standards for both her students and her staff. She demanded excellence and accepted no excuses when it came to truancy. Her diligent and determined work regarding student absenteeism kept many students in school.
Eldis Lilyan Spencer was born in 1905 in Tallahassee, Florida to the Rev. A. B. Spencer (1863-1924) and Lucinda Stroman Spencer (1871-1933). She was chairperson of the women’s day program and a longtime member of Fountain Chapel A.M.E. Church on Eugenia Street, where her father had been pastor. Ms. Spencer and her sisters, Harpie Mae Adams and Willie Gertrude Holly, graduated Florida A&M College for Negroes and lived within three blocks of each other in the Villa Mitchell Hill subdivision, where they grew up. She graduated from the original Lincoln High School and earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics with a special certification in administration and supervision, taking a personal interest in the growth and development of the neighborhood children. A large contingent of the Spencer family came to Tallahassee at some point during the late 19th century.
Ms. Spencer also played an integral role in the establishment of the Bond Community Credit Union, an organization for which she served as Treasurer. She chaired the Negro Division of the March of Dimes campaign to raise money for children with polio, having attended a special school to broaden her knowledge of the disease. She raised $500, equivalent to $6,235.23 in 2022, more than any other division of the campaign. She also assisted with arranging a drive for 168 black children to receive free medical examinations during National Negro Health Week in 1948. That year, Bond School received connection to city water services, which greatly reduced the risk of health hazards due to the contamination of well water. Enrollment more than tripled to nearly 700 students by the end of the decade, which necessitated the need for a new school plant. Ms. Spencer’s boys’ and girls’ basketball teams, which she coached, received statewide recognition during her tenure.
In 1949, a new $125,000 brick addition to the school was completed; a ten-room building which included classrooms, offices, supply and boiler rooms, and sanitation facilities. A six-classroom masonry addition was also planned for Bond in 1950, which was dedicated in April 1951. A champion for youth sports, she was chairperson of health and physical education for the countywide Negro Pre-School Planning Conference. Though praised by both black and white citizens for her work throughout the community, Ms. Spencer asked the Board of Public Instruction not to reappoint her to the principalship in 1951, instead retaining her position as athletic director, mathematics instructor and girls’ basketball coach.
Ms. Spencer’s community service also extended to the Leon County Negro Auxiliary Christmas Seal Sale Committee; an annual fundraising drive which supported the year-round tuberculosis control program of the Ochlockonee Tuberculosis and Health Association, which she chaired on behalf of the Bond Subdivision. In 1947, she was issued a permit to open a restaurant at 829 Eugenia St. in Villa Mitchell. Though the name of the restaurant is not known, Ms. Spencer applied for a county permit to sell beer from the location in 1949.
By 1954, Lilyan Spencer had joined the faculty of Roulhac Negro High School in Chipley, Florida. Hospitalized in Tallahassee in 1956 for an undisclosed illness, she died on January 24, 1957. Having no children of her own, Ms. Spencer’s niece, Altamese Horatio Holly Reddick, became the executor of her estate. Ms. Spencer married Jerry Lee Tinsley in Orlando, Florida on April 3, 1927, with the marriage ending in divorce in 1939.
In 1996, after a yearlong nomination and research process, Bond neighborhood residents asked city commissioners to name a new three-acre neighborhood park and stormwater retention facility after E. Lilyan Spencer, and fellow neighborhood activists Daniel B. Speed and D. Edwina Stephens. It is now known as the Speed–Spencer–Stephens Park. And while it had been decades since Ms. Spencer was considered well-known, Williams commented at the time that the recognition “gives her back the respect she once had.”
Alyce E. McLin (far left) and E. Lilyan Spencer (far right), pose with the Bond Junior High School girls’ and boys’ basketball teams in the 1940s.