© 2023 WFAE
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Remembering Ella Scarborough: A trailblazer and icon

Ella Scarborough talked before Monday's vote that made her Mecklenburg County Commission chair.
Charlotte Mecklenburg GOV Channel

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Ella Scarborough was the first Black woman elected to the Charlotte City Council in 1987, representing District 3. She won an at-large seat six years later. She later became the first Black woman to run for mayor and the U.S Senate in North Carolina. In 2014, she was elected an at-large member of the County Commission. On May 24, Scarborough died at 75.

Her colleagues said she was a true advocate for equity, women and communities of color.

“I think everybody is using the words trailblazer, icon, activist, and legendary for a reason. I am happy that I have gotten the opportunity to know her,” said Black Political Caucus Chair Stephanie Sneed when describing Scarborough.

“She was a long-time active member of the BPC, and she unapologetically fought for what she believed in and for the rights of others, particularly for African Americans,” Sneed said.

Scarborough started to fight for equality early in her life. She was born prematurely in Sumter, South Carolina. She was only three pounds. During this time, Black infants were not guaranteed to have an incubator.

“She had to fight for life even coming into this world,” said poet and storyteller Hannah Hasan. When Hasan first met Scarborough, she interviewed about her life story.

“It was really beautiful to me that she had to fight to be in this world and that she chose to fight for our rights later on,” said Hasan.

When she was 15, she was arrested for protesting against Jim Crow laws. She also helped register people to vote during her teenage years.

Scarborough mentored many people throughout her career, especially her colleagues.

“There wouldn’t be a Vi Lyles. The City Council wouldn’t look like it does today without her — her legacy is long-lasting,” said Sneed.

“She was a legend and an inspiration to all of us,” said Leigh Altman, Mecklenburg county commissioner. “Commissioner Scarborough and I were sworn in together this last term, but I’ve been a constituent of hesr for a very long time, and following her legendary career.”

“Commissioner Scarborough, in my mind, stands for the principle that we can break through barriers. We can achieve things that have never been done before and make this community more reflective of our residents — that in her name and in her honor, we can continue the work.”

Malcolm Graham, City Council District 2 representative, said that Scarborough was a motivator in his early career.

“After I ran for city council for the first time and lost, she pulled me aside and said, ‘hey, dust yourself off and get back on your feet and keep going. You have to keep on fighting.”

Arthur Griffin, former school board chair and current candidate for county commissioner has known Scarborough for forty years.

“She had such grit and resilience," Griffin said. When she would go toe to toe debating issues about how to improve the African American community she had so much courage. Back in the old days, politics were dominated by the male gender, and she would certainly mix it up.

“She grew up in the segregated South, like me. When you grow up seeing ‘white’ water fountains and ‘colored’ water fountains, you grow up with this type of grit and resilience."

In remembering Scarborough, Hasan emphasized the many wins she brought to her community. “We have gained in so many ways — for what she gave for her home, the fact she was able to raise her hand for service and for her to stand in the room uniquely as she was, we all win from that. She’s not only missed, she's celebrated."

A funeral service for Scarborough will be held June 1, at 1 p.m. at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, 3400 Beatties Ford Road, Charlotte.

Political Reporter Steve Harrisson assisted with this article 

Dante Miller is a community engagement producer for WFAE and a Report for America (RFA) Corps members. Dante first joined WFAE in 2020 through RFA to work as part of a unique partnership with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library and Digital Public Library of America. Her work in that project allowed her to use radio, online stories, Wikipedia entries and events to meet the community's news and information needs.