Women of Distinction

My father’s father died before I was born, but his legacy has significantly impacted my life.

Lawson Andrew Scruggs, M.D, would be remarkable even in this era. His passionate racial pride, and his determination to identify role models for young African Americans—women and men—rival the best efforts of today’s civil and women’s rights activists. He was, without doubt, a Renaissance Man of great intellectual energy, and he had a compelling sense of history. 

My grandfather was also certainly a card-carrying feminist and an early consciousness-raiser. (That he was a fully engaged, practicing physician; a full-time professor; and a man socialized in a largely chauvinistic environment, makes his progressive pre-occupations all the more remarkable.) His writing in the 1890’s focused on the importance of women and their accomplishments, and it is breathtaking to realize that his book, Women of Distinction, was written during such a punitive period in our social and racial odyssey. 

When the book was published, women were not yet able to vote. We could not participate in many institutional processes in our own democracy—or for that matter, in most of the rest of the world—and frequently had no identity independence from our husbands or fathers. Yet my grandfather’s writing celebrated the important contributions of African American women. 

The “Preface” in his book is barren of most details of his life and his own accomplishments, likely because when Women of Distinction was published, in 1893, he was 36 years old—just embarking upon his productive medical practice and entering a new marriage following the death of his first wife. (My own father, Leonard Andrew Scruggs, was named in part after the Leonard School of Medicine, an affiliate of Shaw University where Grandfather was senior professor of physiology but actually was the Dean. In that century and well into the next, most African Americans were denied full agency in the leadership of institutions where they would be superior in rank to whites also employed there, as was the case of the Leonard Medical School in Raleigh, North Carolina.) 

Grandfather Scruggs sublimated his prolific drive with his work on his intended next book, to share his impressions of the World Fair he attended in Chicago. That book was never completed. His diary of that experience is in my possession, and reinforces his constant awe of the human potential and creativity of women. His notes reflect his positive bias for Women’s station:

“… I next entered the Women’s Building which, of course, was fine, neatly arranged, well filled and all in good shape. But, of course, I was not so much interested in the special exhibits other than proud to see women do well. The fancy work… etc… was fine, indeed.”

Grandfather Scruggs went on in his life to construct and create treatment protocols for the first African American Tuberculosis Sanitarium in the U.S., named “Pickfair Sanitarium” and located in Southern Pines, North Carolina. Although his personal life is somewhat opaque to us today, we know that his first wife was named Lucy Johnson Scruggs and that she is profiled in Women of Distinction. She died in 1892 at the age of 28. His second wife, and our Dad’s mother, was Clara Jane Burroughs, who Grandfather married in 1895. She died about a year later, at age 27.

When Dr. Scruggs died in 1909, his medical practice had flourished, but the Southern Pines Sanitarium had been destroyed by fire. His material legacy was but a trunk full with “accounts receivable” notations from his patients, who had been desperately ill and in need of medical treatment but were equally desperately impecunious.

My father’s primary inheritance was the fond memory of a protected childhood, and a keen sense of having lived in the aura of a man of great talent, substance and civility. He also inherited a sharp brain, which took him through graduation from Ohio State University and into the Mortuary Science field and into his own businesses in St. Louis, Missouri and Niagara Falls, New York. He later became a Master Electrical Engineer in Buffalo, New York. 

Copies of the original edition of Women of Distinction remain available, but are closely guarded. The book is precious, rare and beautiful to look at and to hold. There were once copies catalogued in the Library of Congress, but when I gained access to the stacks last year, both of these secured copies had been stolen from scholars and public lovers of rare books and of social and intellectual justice. Some original copies still remain in the libraries of historically black colleges and universities, and in a few private book collections. For these reasons, my family is now republishing Women of Distinction: Remarkable in Works and Invincible in Character, in collaboration with Path Press of Indiana.

Our inspiration for this undertaking is appropriately found in the prose and poetry of Dr. Lawson Andrew Scruggs himself:

“… If in such a short time of greatly abridged citizenship our women have accomplished so much, and if many of these heroines mentioned did develop such giant intellects during those dark days of our history, may we not be encouraged to make more diligent, protracted efforts in this brighter age?”

About

Dr. Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich is a political scientist, public policy specialist and award-winning journalist. She served as the Deputy Mayor of Philadelphia, Commissioner of Housing for New York, Executive Director and COO of the National Black Leadership Forum, a tenured Professor at several distinguished universities and Deputy Assistant Secretary of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, where she oversaw the creation of America’s first National Urban Policy. She earned her Ph.D. degree from the University of Pennsylvania.