The following essay is the lead-in to our larger Best in the Nest coverage.
Over the years, I have continuously asked myself what kind of man I would’ve been during the Civil Rights movement, and what seems like a lifetime later, I still have a walking example of solidarity and sacrifice in the form of Miss Dorothy Counts-Scoggins.
In a culture that tends to place an expiration date on influence, here’s someone whose selfless duty to social justice has spanned more years than many of us have been alive — decades of work in education and on the front lines of the South’s fight for equality. Some things just get better with time. It would’ve probably been easier to take another approach rather than endure four days of abuse in an effort to integrate Harry P. Harding High School in 1957, but that’s never been Miss Dorothy’s way.
The work she does today is not only inspirational to an entire new generation of citizens, it’s important to our quality of life. A woman who has already done so much for us continues to fight with the same compassion she had in the late 1950’s. Segregation took on many forms then, and has taken on many more since that time. Once a child with courage, Ms. Scoggins became a woman of destiny; a hero in our community who’s spent decades tirelessly reflecting the best of us during a time when being different could cost you your life.
However, her story doesn’t end with the work she completed in the past. She’s never stopped working. During a recent Girl Scout dedication of a bench that now serves as a memorial to her at Irwin Academic Center, one of our many meetings, I was honored just to park her car. At 77, she’s still everywhere she needs to be and doing everything she wants to see done. A former preschool teacher, she’s on the forefront of the new debate over Mecklenburg County’s re-segregated schools and the fight over integrating along socioeconomic lines.
During a reception for the Hank Willis Thomas For Freedoms art exhibit at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African- American Arts + Culture this year, she gave the audience a private look into those early days of her life. What touched me that night was how those days at Harding, although few, left a lasting impact and shaped her critical analysis and the work she does today.
Ms. Scoggins makes me think of the impact of my work and how integrity is often earned through great sacrifice. A lot of talk is centered around what someone would do if given the opportunity, but she’s created a blueprint of what to do when given a lack of it. I’m reminded that the Civil Rights era is more present tense than ever. To have an example I can visit with today proves that everything an entire generation went through wasn’t that long ago. We tend to downplay the aspects of our history that make us uncomfortable, utilizing time and space as a means of erasing the negative impact. When you think of what our ancestors endured and what some of them perpetuated, accurate historical portrayals are important.
The city of Charlotte is an interesting place today, not without its challenges, which brings to mind an old saying: “If you don’t know your history you’re destined (some say doomed) to repeat it.” We must remember that much of the treatment Miss Dorothy experienced 60 years ago — being openly harassed, accosted and spat on while she walked to school — was completely legal, and much of that behavior is being cultivated again today. We’ve come a long way, but if we’re being honest, not far enough. Our elders provide an oral history we must use to be better than we’ve been in the past as we move forward. Ms. Scoggins reminds us that a lot of students have no knowledge of the past, and she needs them to understand that even if some things have since reverted, a lot of things have happened as a result of people making sacrifices so children today can have a better education.
Where it gets real is that a woman who is revered throughout the city, state and country lives right here in Charlotte, and she’s never stopped working for the people — never stopped to put her feet up. The internet has drastically upgraded our access to the past, but we still tend to treat these historical men and women as just that — antiquated notions of human beings. Ms. Scoggins is a historical figure who lives and works among us today, and in my opinion, it is important to give our elders their flowers while they can smell them.
She is a champion of justice and equality whose life serves as an example of what you can accomplish if you never give up. I still wonder what kind of man I would’ve been doing the Civil Rights movement, but if I could just be half the human being Miss Scoggins has become, my work would not be in vain.