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.