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A yearning for justice and dedication to equality in the African American community today mirrors the same hopes and struggles more than a century ago, as reflected in author Lawson A. Scruggs’ book “Women of Distinction,” written in 1893. Progress has been slow, but Dr. Scruggs lauded the efforts of 91 Black women who helped make a difference in keeping this important struggle alive.
The book, “Women of Distinction,” introduced 91 Black women who made significant contributions to the nation in the 19th century. Nearly 130 years after Dr. Scruggs wrote the book, it was re-released by his granddaughter, Dr. Yvonne Scruggs Leftwich, with an Evanston publisher. She noted her grandfather’s thoughts “would be remarkable even in this era.”
Dr. Scruggs Leftwich wrote the forward for the re-publication in 2020. She emphasized that the book was written before women could even vote, and in the 1920s the women who could vote were mostly white women. She translates her grandfather’s passion to the current feminist age.
“He would easily be certified as a card-carrying feminist consciousness-raiser of this century,” she wrote.
Dr. Scruggs had a determination to identify role models for young Black women and men while writing “Women of Distinction,” as well as recognize and thank Black women for their sacrifices. He referenced this belief in the original preface of the book:
“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?”
The introduction of the book was written by Josephine Turpin Washington, a writer, teacher and graduate of Howard University. She was 32 years old when “Women of Distinction” was published. She died in 1949.
Mrs. Turpin sets up the biographies by explaining the then-current state of womanhood in the country:
“The nineteenth century, ‘woman’s century,’ as Victor Hugo aptly terms it, marks the acme of her development, but there has been no time when her power was not felt… The ‘progressive woman’ is caricatured and held up as a horror and a warning to that portion of the feminine world who might be tempted into like forbidden paths.”
The reader can feel the two-way conversation in Mrs. Turpin’s mind. She was supportive of the progress made surrounding women’s rights a century ago but within the parameters of the misogyny that existed at that time.
“Are they, too, included in these movements of progress in this marvelous advance of womankind?” Mrs. Turpin questioned about ‘Afro-American’ women. “Much have they wrought yet much remains for future work…All the disabilities which affect race in this country our women have contended against, with the added disability.”
Mrs. Turpin described the differences between “Anglo-American” womanhood “Afro-American” womanhood. It was evident to her that Black and white women’s experiences of sexism were completely different, because of the shared marginalization of race and gender Black women faced, later described as the theory of intersectionality.
Maybe Turpin and Scruggs thought racism and sexism would lessen in the new millennium, or maybe a part of them, even if small, knew at their time that a country built on such fundamentals can never truly denounce the inequality they were born of.
Dr. Scruggs was a practicing physician and full-time professor. He died at age 36 in Buffalo, New York, 16 years after “Women of Distinction” was published. Fast-forward to the 21st century, when it was hard to come by copies of his work.
There were two copies catalogued in the Library of Congress that were later stolen, a few copies at Historically Black Colleges and Universities and some in private collections.
For those reasons, Dr. Scruggs’ family decided to re-publish “Women of Distinction” for the next generation to enjoy and to learn that since its first publication, the United States has not made as many strides in the name of progress as was hoped.
Dr. Scruggs Leftwich re-published the book with Path Press in Evanston, one of the first Black-owned publishing companies in the United States.
Bennett Johnson, a founder of Path Press, along with Herman C. Gilbert, said Dr. Scruggs Leftwich reached out to him about re-publishing the book. Mr. Johnson, a long-time civil rights activist, said he understood the importance of the book and the exposure re-publishing could bring to current social justice issues.
“The racist society still has Black women at the bottom of power in this country,” he said. “I think everybody should read the book, it’s fascinating. You’ll realize that we may not have gone as forward as we thought. It wakes you up.”