June 24, 1933 – Sept. 16, 2022
Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich, a former Buffalonian who held high positions in the administrations of President Jimmy Carter and Gov. Mario Cuomo, then went on to make her greatest impact as a political commentator and head of the influential Black Leadership Forum, died Sept. 16 in Hanover, Md., from complications related to Alzheimer's disease. She was 89.
Praised as “one of the most important intellectual leaders of the modern civil rights movement," she was born in Niagara Falls, the oldest of four children. Her father was Leonard A. Scruggs, a funeral director, Pullman porter and master electrical engineer, and her mother was Geneva B. Scruggs, a teacher and social activist for whom a former health clinic on Buffalo's East Side was named.
She grew up in Buffalo, taking music and dance lessons and attending School 75. At Fosdick-Masten Park High School, she worked on the school newspaper and as a member of the debate team had her first serious experiences with racial and gender discrimination.
She was prominent at what is now North Carolina Central University, a historically Black college in Durham, N.C., where she majored in political science, minored in history and was news editor of the student newspaper her freshman year.
She was elected president of the women's student government and, after she lost a race for president of the entire student body because male students would not vote for a woman, the college president created a position for her as undergraduate public relations officer.
In 1955, she was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to study at the University of Bonn in Germany, the only African American among the 268 students who were accepted. She transferred to the Free University of Berlin and took ballet classes at the Berlin Opera Ballet Company.
When she returned in 1956, she enrolled in the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University's Bologna Center in Italy, but as one of only two Black students, she did not feel her abilities were respected.
"I told them I was a Western Europe specialist, bilingual in German, and I didn’t want to be someone’s secretary,” she told an interviewer in 2013.
As a result, she left to take an assistantship at what is now the Hubert Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, where she earned a master's degree.
In 1959, she moved to Philadelphia, where she turned her interests from international affairs to urban planning after she was hired as a specialist on an urban renewal project. She went on to earn a doctorate in urban planning from the University of Pennsylvania.
She went to Washington, D.C., in 1974 to join the faculty of Howard University's former School of Architecture and Planning and became part of the Carter administration in 1978 as deputy assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
She also was made executive director of the Urban and Regional Policy Task Force, where she oversaw development of the first national urban policy.
She was divorced from her first husband Sherman Perry, whom she had met in college, when she returned to Buffalo in 1981 following the death of her mother to be director of the regional officer of the State Housing Agency. Here she met Rev. Edward V. Leftwich Jr., a former gospel singer who was director of the State Assembly's Urban Revitalization Task Force and district director for Deputy Assembly Speaker Arthur O. Eve. They were married in 1982.
The following year Dr. Scruggs-Leftwich became the highest-ranking African American woman in Albany when Gov. Mario Cuomo appointed her commissioner of Housing and Community Renewal.
When she resigned in 1985, she was named deputy mayor of Philadelphia under the city's first Black mayor, W. Wilson Goode, and served for two years.
She then joined her husband as operating officer and co-owner of an innovative electronic banking corporation he developed to serve low-income families.
When it closed in 1990, she became a consultant on municipal finance and served on several corporate boards. She was invited to head the Urban Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., which she ran until 1995.
In 1996, she became the first executive director and chief operating officer of the Black Leadership Forum, a coalition of prominent civil rights leaders. She expressed her strategy for improving race relations in an interview with the Washington Post in 1997.
"Look at smoking," she said. "For a long time people said you shouldn't smoke, it's bad for your health, it's bad for my health. Then people began to complain. Now you can't smoke in (many public places). That's the same kind of moral suasion that I would like to see prevailing with regard to rights and entitlements of people of color."
She also was a professor in George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and the National Labor College-George Meany Campus.
In retirement in St. Petersburg, Fla., she and her husband started Quantum Opportunities, an after-school program for at-risk teens, through the Center for Community and Economic Justice. She chaired the transition team for St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman in 2012 and was co-chair of the city's 2020 Plan Taskforce, which mapped out revitalization of the depressed Southside neighborhood.
Her husband died in 2013 and she moved to Maryland in 2016 to be near one of her daughters.
She produced many articles, policy reports and commentary, and appeared regularly on radio and TV news programs. For her syndicated newspaper column, she won a Front Page Award for commentary from the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild in 2007.
She was listed in Who's Who in America, Who's Who Among Black Americans and Who's Who Among American Women.
With her siblings, she republished "Women of Distinction," 91 biographical appreciations of notable 19th century women of African descent written in 1893 by their grandfather, Dr. Lawson A. Scruggs, who built the first African American tuberculosis sanitarium in the U.S. in North Carolina.
She also was author of "Standing with My Fist: Black Women in the Political Diaspora" in 2005, "Consensus and Compromise: Creating the First National Urban Policy under President Carter" in 2006 and "Sound Bites of Protest: Race, Politics and Public Policy" in 2008.
She shared her second husband's love of music, sang and played piano and guitar.
Survivors include three daughters, Cathryn "Kate" Perry, Rebecca Perry-Glickstein and Tienne Callender; a son, Edward V. "Jason" Leftwich III; two sisters, Harriet A. Scruggs and Roslyn E. Scruggs; a brother, Leonard A. "Peter" Scruggs; and three grandsons.
There will be no services.