Mabel Scruggs – Educator, Community Leader, and Civil Rights Activist

Thursday, March 13, 2014 - by Gay Morgan Moore
Mabel Scruggs
Mabel Scruggs

During Black History Month and Rev. Martin Luther King’s birthday celebration, we honor the achievements of national civil rights leaders, like King, Andrew Young, and Rosa Parks, but none of these well-known persons could have accomplished anything without the courageous actions of thousands of people at the local level who risked their lives to fight for what they believed. These courageous men and women included a number of people who lived in Chattanooga.

One of them was Mabel Scruggs.

I met Mrs. Scruggs shortly after she celebrated her 104th birthday on March 29, 2013. After recovering from several birthday celebrations given by her family and many friends, she graciously invited me to her home to interview her for my upcoming book on women’s spirituality as it evolves over our lifetime. Although her voice and body were frail, her mind and spirit were strong. Indeed, this warm and gentle lady radiated strength and dignity. 

Born in Chattanooga, the great-granddaughter of a slave, Mrs. Scruggs was reared by her grandmother, while her mother, a teacher and principal, worked in Chickamauga, Georgia. Describing herself as a “sheltered child” whose grandmother watched everything she did, Mrs. Scruggs was influenced by these strong women to excel in school. First attending Lincoln High School, she graduated as the salutatorian of Howard High School’s class of 1926.

There were not many jobs open to educated women black or white, but she followed the advice of her grandmother “not to become any man’s secretary.” Believing that “God had called me to teach,” she earned a bachelor’s degree from Clark College in Atlanta and a master’s degree in English and education from Atlanta University. Mabel began her long career as an educator first in elementary school and later as a high school English teacher.

She married Booker Scruggs, Jr., also a graduate of Atlanta University and an educator. Married sixty-one years when he died in 1996, the couple had one child, Booker Scruggs II.

Throughout her life, Mabel Scruggs served her community, not only as teacher, but as a member of the Wiley United Methodist Church where she taught Sunday school, acted as church secretary, and was a frequent delegate to the United Methodist Holsten Conference.  

When the civil rights movement re-ignited after World War II, she and her husband were “right there in the middle of it all.” She recalled one incident when she, her husband, and several other black teachers, visited long time Chattanooga mayor, Edward Bass (served 1927 to 1947,) to ask for equal pay for black teachers in the city’s segregated school system. Bass refused to consider the salary increase and told them, “You’ll never get it. So my husband said, ‘We’ll still be trying.’ ”

As protests in Chattanooga began in the early 1960’s, Mrs. Scruggs and her husband, Booker, joined others during sit-ins at movie theaters and restaurants, enduring the scorn and threats of some white Chattanoogans. She was quick to say that other white Chattanoogans, some of whom became life-long friends, joined them in protesting racial segregation. Describing her husband as a “fighter,” Mabel Scruggs was also a fighter. Stating, “Sometimes you had to fight every day, it wasn’t easy.” A woman of great faith, Mabel Scruggs had a close, personal relationship with God. Simply put, she lived her faith and it sustained her and guided her. Responding to my question concerning her feelings towards those who had opposed racial justice, she replied firmly that she, “didn’t hate anybody, hate sickens you.”

Mrs. Scruggs was particularly proud of her son, Booker Scruggs II. He was a member of the Howard High School Class of 1960, which organized lunch counter sit-ins in downtown Chattanooga. This courageous group of students was the only group of high school students to conduct a sit-in on their own; other sit-ins were conducted by in large by college students with older advisors. Booker II went on to become an educator, professional musician, as well as producer and host of the nation’s longest running locally produced television show, Point of View.

As Martin Luther King said, “The arc of history runs toward justice.” And the arc of justice did eventually prove Ed Bass and a lot of others wrong. When the Chattanooga City Schools integrated, Mrs. Scruggs moved to previously all white Chattanooga High School, which became the predominately black Riverside High School, where she served as the chairwoman of the English department. Finally, she was able to use her considerable talents to help educate and guide all students, both black and white. Prior to her retirement from Riverside, she was named “Teacher of the Year” by the faculty and “Our Lady of the Year” by the students. Her sorority, Zeta Phi Beta, also named a scholarship in honor of her work with that organization.

Although she did not realize it at the time, she and those who fought for expanded civil rights also played a role in expanding the rights of women. Early in the interview, talking about her own career, she stated she did have not many choices, unlike young women today, “I didn’t have those chances.” It was the only time during the interview she sounded regretful.

As we talked about the history she had lived, I asked her to recount the most significant event she had witnessed. Without hesitation, she said, “You know what it is – the election of a black President. I never thought I would see it in my lifetime.”

Mabel Scruggs died two months after this interview, having enriched the lives of her family, her many friends, the students she taught, the teachers she mentored, her church, and her community. A life well lived.            

 

Gay Morgan Moore retired from the faculty of Chattanooga State Community Technical College. She is the author of several books including Chattanooga’s Forest Hills Cemetery and Chattanooga’s St. Elmo.



Five Tennessee Sites Added to the National Register of Historic Places

The Tennessee Historical Commission has announced five Tennessee sites have been added to the National Register of Historic Places. The National Register of Historic Places is the nation’s official list of cultural resources worthy of preservation. It is part of a nationwide program that coordinates and supports efforts to identify, evaluate and protect historic resources. The ... (click for more)

Information on African-American Race Track of the 1940's

A reader asked if anyone had information on an African-American race track in the 1940's in Chattanooga.  http://www.chattanoogan.com/2014/7/13/280255/Reader-Seeks-Information-on.aspx. Local racing historian Robert F. Richey responded with the following information.  If you would like to correspond with Mr. Richey about this or any other local racing topic, you may ... (click for more)

Storm Brings Heavy Rain, Wind Through Area

Severe storms brought heavy rain and wind north of Chattanooga on Wednesday evening. EPB crews were dealing with power outages in Brainerd, Soddy Daisy, Shallowford-Tyner and East Chattanooga. It was a very busy evening for emergency responders in Cleveland and Bradley County. The evening storm that passed through Wednesday brought a lot of heavy rain and wind that caused ... (click for more)

Man Robbed, Stabbed At Hixson Pike Bus Stop

A man was robbed and stabbed at a bus stop on Hixson Pike on Tuesday night. At approximately 9:30 p.m., officers were called concerning a robbery at 3800 Hixson Pike. Phani Tangirala, 22, was transported to a local hospital by HCEMS for treatment of a stab wound to the abdomen. Medical personnel stated that Mr. Tangirala appeared to have a non-life threatening wound to ... (click for more)

Black Creek TIF Decision-Who Guards The Hen House?

Citizens of Chattanooga were invited to give public comment before their own Industrial Development Board Aug. 15. They arrived to find foxes guarding their hen house.  Many thought the meeting was their opportunity to seek redress in the ill-conceived Black Creek Tax Increment Financing plan. However, they learned it was a sham orchestrated by both the past and present ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: Coaches Vs. ‘Top 25’ Foes

The long-accepted measuring stick for a college football coach has been his win-loss record, with an after-glance at his win-loss record within his conference. But in Wednesday’s editions of the Wall Street Journal, writer David Everson, with the help of Stats LLC, used a much-tougher litmus test when he revealed the records of 65 major-college coaches against opponents that were ... (click for more)