Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

High School and College: Exposure to Debate, Politics, Injustice

BOND:  Tell me about the decision to go to North Carolina – to school now  - you make two choices – one is to go South which is very different from what you’re used to in Buffalo, and the other is go to Central as opposed to Shaw.

SCRUGGS-LEFTWICH:  They’re all linked. I was going to be a lawyer.  I finally settled on being a lawyer – and I was going to be a civil rights lawyer.

BOND:  Modeled after whom – who…

SCRUGGS-LEFTWICH:  Well, reading.  Of course, we all read a lot

BOND:  What did you read?  What  night paper did you get besides the Buffalo paper?

SCRUGGS-LEFTWICH:  There were two papers in Buffalo.  There was the Pittsburgh Courier.  It’s funny you ask.  There was the Pittsburgh Courier – there was a paper in Buffalo, even back in those days.

BOND:  The Challenger

SCRUGGS-LEFTWICH:  The Challenger – no, there was another paper, run by the Merriweathers.  I don’t know why I can’t remember, but my mother wrote for it.  The Merriweathers were a family – prominent family – the daughters were teachers and judges. The sons ran the newspaper – the Criterion. -- the Criterion.  We read Crisis Magazine – back in those years, I can still see those Crisis magazines.  And listened to the news and my parents discussed what was going on in the country and who was being abused, and who stood for civil rights;  who was a race person.  The phrase back in those days was “He’s a race man.”  And so I know that I was  influenced by the lawyers at the NAACP and the lawyers in town, because of course we had lawyers in town.  Mr. Mahoney and others were friends of my parents. But I decided I wanted to be a lawyer because  -- I competed in oratorical contests.  I was on the debate team;  the only African American on the debate team.  I got put off the debate team because I won debates. And I was the only black on the team, and the parents of other children complained to the school.   And they said I was just a freshman. And so weren’t allowed to be on the debate team.  The debate teacher didn’t agree with it.  She gave me A’s.  But I had to get off the debate team, because I was the only freshman on the debate team. So I had a little of this experience -- hand-on-experience.

But I need to step back a little.  I also, in this traveling by myself up and down the road, I also became involved in the High-Y organization, which was a youth in government incubator in NYS and went to Albany as a delegate from my Hi-Y and was elected Speaker of the Assembly. It was wonderful experience.  And there were three African American kids in Albany.   Francis Cook from Nyack, and a young woman from Brooklyn and me. 

And I got to be a legislator. I went to Albany two or three times. And so all of these things -- being around politics. it all sort of said to me, I want to be involved in this fight having to do with unfairness and inequity and injustice. So I was going to be a lawyer.  Well, I got accepted at what is now Case Western Reserve.  And it was very clear – I had never been South.  My father would go South every year to make a pilgrimage to Bedford, Virginia where his sister – it was really his cousin but he’d been raised with his sister – his father died when he was 13 – and his uncle and his uncle’s wife raised my father along with their children.  So, he would go to see my aunt, and then he would go to see his half-sister in St. Louis. And I would beg to go with him.  And he would refuse to take me.  And he would say: “ I’m not taking you down there because we will both end up on the end of a rope at the bottom of some tree. I am not taking you.”  So he would never take me.  Well here I was wanting to be a civil rights lawyer, having lived in what was then thought to be the liberated North. I didn’t know anything about segregation as it was being experienced in the South. 

So, I decided I wanted to go south to undergraduate school.  My parents said that was fine. I wanted to go to Shaw.  Shaw was on its heels at that time.  It was not accredited.  And when we got the catalogue, my mother says, “You’re not going to Shaw.”  And we then back to the catalogue of colleges and universities, and she said.  “Well, if you want to be in North Carolina, NC Central is NC College is accredited “A”; My friend, Helen Edmonds, my classmate from St. Paul, is on the faculty there, I’ll call up Helen.”  So she called up

BOND:  That’s what you call being connected.

SCRUGGS-LEFTWICH:  Oh, right.  She called Dr. Edmonds.  I always take the opportunity to say that Helen Edmonds was one of the first women – first African Americans to be a delegate to the United Nations.   She was a Republican and just a marvelous historian, and     I knew her for the rest of my life. But my mother called up Helen Edmonds, and said I’m sending Yvonne down there to school.  And she said, Have her come on….she can major in History.  So I majored in Political Science and History.  And went to NCC. I was going to be a lawyer still.  I went on to the law school because I finished my course work early, and so I took several courses in the law school, but then I got the Fulbright fellowship. . .