Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Social Consciousness: Gender

BOND: Seeing her do these things must have sent some kind of signal to you, conscious or not, that women can do these things.

LEFTWICH: Absolutely.

BOND: This is not men's work.

LEFTWICH: And my father said to me any number of times, "You're going to finish school. I'm not going to have you marrying and having to be subjected to treatment that you don't deserve. You will finish school." And when he said "finish school" he didn't mean high school. He didn't mean college. He meant graduate school. So I had all of this reinforcement from the role model from my mother, but my father also, who was a staunch feminist, and his father had been. My grandfather who was the physician wrote a book published in 1893 called Women of Distinction. You can find this book in the Library of Congress. You can find it in the libraries of all of the historically black colleges and universities. You can find it in the bibliography of women — of people who do studies of black women, for example, Where and When I Enter [The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America]. It's in —

BOND: The Paula Giddings title.

LEFTWICH: Right. My grandfather wrote this book and he surveyed. He tried to survey a hundred women whom he considered to be influential in the African American community. He did profiles in this book of ninety-one women. Do not ask me how he got these surveys scheduled in an era where the pony express was probably a privilege. But he said that he was writing this book because he was really tired of going in train stations and seeing newspapers posted which denigrated the contributions of African American women. That's what he called them. African American women. Not Afro-American, not colored, not Negro. And he wanted to make sure as he called it, that "this bark transmits," which is the old fashioned word for a treatise, transmitted information about the rich contributions of African American women. Not only to the African American community, but to the larger community. When you looked at schools and orphanages and social welfare agencies and churches and church programs that women had started. Not to mention the doctors, and — there were no lawyers in this book, I don't even know if there were any lawyers who were African American women in those days. But he wanted it to be clear that these were the contributions of these women. Now in the book are a few women who you'd recognize — Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Mary [Church] Terrell — people like that. But there are a lot of women who started schools whose names, I guess, passed out of memory when they died. But from the biographies you could tell these were very important women. And so I had all of this history of the rights and the possibilities of women and the fact that opportunities ought to be made available. And when the opportunity came, you ought not to — you ought to take advantage of it. I see some of that in what I was writing about Brown. Saying — I wish I could recall why I thought that would be a problem. But saying that half of the — the proof of half of that pudding was going to be in the use, the access of the opportunity and that people should be encouraged to do that. So, when I think back on my growing up years, I just really do feel that I had unique kinds of encouragement.

BOND: What was your grandfather's name?

LEFTWICH: He was Lawson Andrew Scruggs, Dr. Lawson Andrew Scruggs.

BOND: Where'd he go to medical school?

LEFTWICH: Well, you know, in those days you interned. He went to the Leonard School of Medicine at Shaw University. There's more to that story. My father's name is Leonard, and of course my brother — I have one brother — he's Leonard Jr. His son is Leonard the third. All growing out of that Leonard School of Medicine. But my grandfather then went on to be associate dean of the Leonard School of Medicine at Shaw University because in those days there were — when you think of the fact that Mordecai Johnson was the first black president of Howard University, you can imagine that you did not have African American deans at schools, even schools that were exclusively for African Americans. So, he was the associate dean at the Leonard School of Medicine which was where people who went to Shaw University trained, and he taught anatomy there at Shaw.

BOND: When I think about Shaw I think about two things. One is the founding conference of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was held there in April of 1960. But also the graduate of Shaw I know the most about is Ella Baker. I wonder if your grandfather, Ella Baker, if there's any relationship?

LEFTWICH: I don't. Ella Baker —

BOND: They're different times.

LEFTWICH: I think it's kind of out of —

BOND: Yeah. They're out of chronological sequence.

LEFTWICH: Out of chronological sequence. But I know he didn't know all these women who were assembled there from all over the country. There were many women whose — there were not many women whose names have continued like Ella Baker. But neither did he know all of these women that he wrote about. They're from all over the country, and I know he didn't know them all. So there was a network of information, of communication in the African American community in the end of the nineteenth century that had made it possible for him to contact and write to and get information back.

BOND: And something else struck me — that also he knew who they were. If we don't know who they are now, he knew who they were then because these were people who were talked about, were written about, whose names appeared in the black press at the time.

LEFTWICH: Right, right. That was of course why he wanted to do the book, because he thought it was one thing for there to be this episodic reporting on the good works of African American women. It was another thing entirely to have it all collected together so anybody could see that these women were important contributors to American life.