From NKAA, Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (main entry)

Spencer, Onah Lee

(born: April 27, 1899  -  died: February 1, 1972) 

Onah L. Spencer was a music composer, music and entertainment journalist, folklorist, and a historian. He was a member of Chicago's Black Renaissance. Onah L. Spencer was born in Hardin Couty, KY, on April 27, 1899, the son of Clara F. Bueler Spencer (1879-1961) and Lee Spencer [source: Onah L. Spencer in the Ohio County Marriages Index; Ohio Deaths Index; and Social Security Death Index]. Onah L. Spencer was described as a "light Negro" on his WWI Draft Registration Card, and he and his family are listed as white in the 1920 Census. They are listed as black, mulatto, or Negro in the 1910 and subsequent census records after 1920. 

It is not known when the family left Kentucky, but Onah's two younger sisters, Bessie and Elsie, were born in Ohio around 1902 and 1904, according to census records. The children were living in Cincinnati with only their mother when she, Clara Spencer, was listed as the widow of Lee Spencer on p.1713 in William's Cincinnati Business Directory for 1907. His mother was a laundrywoman and Onah L. Spencer started working at an early age. In the 1910 census his occupation was listed as a houseboy, and in 1920, he was a butcher at the Meat Emporium in Cincinnati. 

November 30, 1928, Onah L. Spencer married Cora B. Gray, and in 1930, Onah was employed as a printer [sources: Ohio County Marriages Index; and 1930 U.S. Federal Census]. By 1940, Onah L. Spencer was divorced and living in Chicago in a boarding house on Oakwood Boulevard, he was employed as a writer with the WPA Writers' Project [source: 1940 U.S. Federal Census]. His work includes a major contribution of articles and essays on Negro Music and Musicians, all of which can be found in the Illinois Writers' Project Papers in the Vivian Harsh Research Collection at the Chicago Public Library [finding aid to collection]. More information on the WPA work by Onah L. Spencer and others can be found in The Negro In Illinois by Brian Dolinar, who credits Spencer as the author of the 1934 pageant "O, Sing a New Song" (p.xxxix).

In addition to his literary and news writing, Onah L. Spencer was also a composer, and in 1937 one of his works was premiered June 2 on Station WSAI in Cincinnati; the orchestra played "The Oriental Swing," a piece that Spencer collaborated on with Nobel Sissle while producing the 1934 pageant [source: "Spencer writes new swing tune," The Afro-American, 06/19/1937, p.10]. The song "Oriental Swing" was recorded by Lil Hardin Armstrong in 1938. Onah L. Spencer was also a composer on "Stack O'Lee Blues: melancholy" that was recorded by Johnny Dodds prior to Dodds' death in  1940.  

At the close of his time with the WPA, Onah L. Spencer continued writing as a correspondent for the publication Down Beat, covering jazz on the south side of Chicago, and also traveling to other cities for interviews and reviews, as well as writing for other publications. He also continued his work as a composer on a number of records, such as the 1949 title "Mercenary Papa: you got to pay those dues," recorded by Cootie Williams around 1949. In December of 1951, he was composer of the Chess record "Leo the Louse" played by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats [image]. The record was released in January of 1952. By 1958, Onah L. Spencer had returned to Cincinnati where he died February 1, 1972 [sources: p.1262 in William's Cincinnati (Hamilton County, Ohio) City Directory, 1958; and Ohio Deaths Index].

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Read about Hardin County, Kentucky in Wikipedia.

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Cite This NKAA Entry:

“Spencer, Onah Lee,” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, accessed June 12, 2024,

Last modified: 2023-05-26 15:51:42