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.



Noogahistory.com Uncovers Images From Chattanooga's Past

Earl Freudenberg: The Day The Hamilton National Bank Collapsed

SDMHA Event Set At The Good Ole Days Museum Sept. 17


Noogahistory.com, a project by Picnooga founder David Moon, has rediscovered over 30 glass plate negatives of the Chattanooga area from around 1900, with potentially more to come. Nooga History ... (click for more)

The number one news story that I covered while a reporter would have to be the 1976 collapse of the Hamilton National Bank. It was my family’s bank for nearly 50 years while they operated a grocery ... (click for more)

The Soddy, Daisy & Montlake Historical Association announces that the Good Old Days Museum will be hosting "Saturday History Talks" so guests can hear local experts share local stories and ... (click for more)



Memories

Noogahistory.com Uncovers Images From Chattanooga's Past

Noogahistory.com, a project by Picnooga founder David Moon, has rediscovered over 30 glass plate negatives of the Chattanooga area from around 1900, with potentially more to come. Nooga History has acquired the lot and will be digitizing them soon, where they will be available on the project’s website. The negatives are connected to a collection of over 400 glass plate negatives ... (click for more)

Earl Freudenberg: The Day The Hamilton National Bank Collapsed

The number one news story that I covered while a reporter would have to be the 1976 collapse of the Hamilton National Bank. It was my family’s bank for nearly 50 years while they operated a grocery store on North Market Street and where I opened my first checking account at the Northside branch. February 16 th wasn’t an ordinary news day as one of the city’s most familiar skyscrapers ... (click for more)

Breaking News

Man, 38, In Critical Condition After He Is Shot Multiple Times On E. 40th Street Off Wilson Road

A 38-year-old man is in critical condition after being shot multiple times on Tuesday night. The incident happened around 8 p.m. at 700 E. 48th St. just off Wilson Road. Police were advised that the victim was suffering from a life-threatening injury. Police were told this was a potential dispute between two people that turned violent. The victim was taken to a ... (click for more)

Coty Wamp Names Top Leadership Posts In DA's Office

District Attorney Coty Wamp on Tuesday announced five new leadership positions in the office of the District Attorney. The new positions include executive assistant district attorney, deputy district attorney, gang and violent crime prosecutor, chief homicide prosecutor and child sex abuse prosecutor. “These prosecutors reflect my priorities,” said DA Wamp, who took office ... (click for more)

Opinion

Soddy Daisy Needs A Real Emergency Room - And Response (2)

I am a longtime resident of north Hamilton County, living in what is now Soddy Daisy. A few years ago, I cut my leg using a chainsaw. My wife drove me to an emergency room in Red Bank. After waiting for what seemed like a long time, I was told I would need to go to their downtown location to be sewn up. They told me, “There’s nobody here who can sew you up!” Frustrated, my wife ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: As Others See Us

The picture shows a young blonde girl, her arm around her dad’s neck, as “she watches a man wearing a dog mask and (draped) in a flag that indicates he likes to pretend to be a dog at the Chattanooga Pride parade in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Oct. 2.” No, I wasn’t there but The Epoch Times was, and on Tuesday there appeared on its website a story with the headline: ‘Corporate-Sponsored ... (click for more)