Politics isn’t for the faint of heart, but it was something Ella Scarborough felt called to do, Jackie Dash said Wednesday about her friend of 35 years.
Beginning as a teen, active in the civil rights movement, and later as a Charlotte City Council member and Mecklenburg County commissioner, Scarborough’s motivation was to help others, loved ones recall. Scarborough died last Tuesday at the age of 75 after a period of declining health.
Visitation and funeral services were held Wednesday at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church. Bouquets and wreaths of red, white and pink flowers lined the church’s stage along with two tall portraits of Scarborough looking out toward friends and family.
Dash was among several people who offered three-minute reflections during the funeral.
Scarborough kept her love for people close to her heart and remained passionate about her government service, Dash said. She recalled being invited to attend government meetings with Scarborough.
“Politics is not for the faint of heart,” Dash said. “But Ella said to me, ‘Jackie, this is something I’ve got to do. I’ve got to help my people. And she did and she did it well.”
She also was the first Black woman to run for Charlotte mayor and U.S. Senate in North Carolina.
Scarborough loved being a member of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church and was the reason Dash became a member of the congregation.
Celebrating Scarborough’s life
To start the service, the Rev. Larry Whitley of Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist in Matthews read from Ecclesiastes, Chapter 3, reminding those gathered of the cyclical nature of life — “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.”
That includes a time for funerals that didn’t drag on too long, said the Rev. J.R. Covington of Missionary Baptist Church.
“Ella wanted a short funeral. She made sure her pastor was aware,” Covington said before speakers began. “So hit it, quit it and sit it down.”
The speakers shared lighthearted stories and memories that elicited laughs, fitting the funeral program’s title of “Celebration of Life.”
No family or friend could visit Charlotte without a ceremonial tour, during which Scarborough showed people every building the City Council fought to have, Scarborough’s niece, Lei Washington, said.
Washington joked that Scarborough must have known how to “morph” because sometimes she’d be at a government meeting and have dinner on the table for her kids at the same time.
“She taught me by living what it meant to be dynamic and to never, ever stop,” Washington said.
Troy Scarborough said his mother was funny.
“Some of you are wondering why there’s no casket here,” Troy Scarborough said. “She said ‘It’s because I don’t want all those people breathing in my face.’ ”
Her place in history
Speakers also recounted Scarborough’s role in Charlotte’s and the region’s history.
County Commissioner Pat Cotham retold the story of Scarborough desegregating the intensive care unit at the South Carolina hospital she was born in. Scarborough’s father fought for her to have a place and “Ella, in turn, stood up for what was right her whole life,” Cotham said.
“Ella was fun, loved the arts and loved to dance,” Cotham said. “I smile when I think about Ella and I dancing down Tryon Street during many parades.”
She would break into song and stood out in a room, Cotham said. She was beautiful, smart, classy and gracious, Cotham tearfully said.
Carolyn Lloyd of the South Carolina State Alumni Association also spoke Wednesday during the service, saying she met Scarborough at a South Carolina State University residence hall when they were both students.
Scarborough was born in Sumter, S.C., and became active in civil rights in 1963, when she and hundreds of other Black students tried to enter a segregated movie theater.
Five years later, as a senior at S.C. State, she tried to help integrate the town’s only bowling alley.
South Carolina Highway Patrol officers fired into a crowd of Black students, killing three people and injuring 28. It became known as the Orangeburg Massacre.
Scarborough graduated from S.C. State and moved to Charlotte in 1971. She was a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority.
In 1987, she was elected to the Charlotte City Council’s District 3 seat. Scarborough ran and won an at-large council seat in 1994, ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 1998, then ran for mayor in 1999 and 2001 and returned to elected office in 2014 by winning an at-large county commission seat.
She served until she physically couldn’t, Troy Scarborough said.
“Mama was born a fighter,” he said. “She wasn’t supposed to live five minutes, let alone 75 years.”
County Commissioner Vilma Leake said Scarborough “dared” her to run for office and that she’s “been doing it ever since.”
“We struggled with the issues of politics as Black women,” Leake said. “We still suffer today because of our blackness, but not because of our strength. … She helped continue the fight that is still going on. And I love you, Ella.”
This story was originally published June 1, 2022 6:52 AM.