ITHACA, N.Y. — “Mama Scott said live simply, Mama Scott said care deeply, Mama Scott said speak kindly, and live out loud,” a chorus of Southside Community Center youth performers sang at the 2019 Southside Juneteenth Festival, which was dedicated to longtime Ithaca teacher and activist Jacqueline Elizabeth Melton Scott.
Scott, who passed away at the age of 82 in March, spent her life teaching about the historical and present conditions that create race, class and gender injustice, while uplifting the contributions of black people in Ithaca and beyond. She was remembered at Saturday’s celebration as someone who struggled tirelessly to make Ithaca a more inclusive and equitable community.
“The best way we can celebrate her is to keep up the struggle,” said Margaret Washington, professor of history at Cornell University and a close friend of Scott’s.
Washington said Scott was distressed by some recent changes in the Southside neighborhood where she was born and raised and returned as an adult in the 1990s, after a period in Cambridge during which she established a Montessori school. She was distressed, Washington said, by gentrification – by longtime residents priced out of their homes and replaced by newcomers who, in some cases, tried to change the neighborhood rather than becoming part of it.
“She would raise her voice tremendously about that,” Washington said, because she believed in the neighborhood and the city.
Over her years in Ithaca, Scott went from being a youngster at the Southside Community Center to a teen supervising kids there to the adult at its helm, serving as director during the ’90s. She was a fixture at the center right until the end of her life. A photo featured on the 2019 Juneteenth program shows Scott seated in what Nia Nunn, president of the Southside board and assistant professor of education at Ithaca College, called the “Black Panther” chair from which she read stories to kids.
Preaching black girl empowerment until the end, at her last Southside story time Scott read “I Am Enough”: “I know that we don’t look the same, our skin our eyes our hair our frame. But that does not dictate our worth. We both have places here on Earth. And in the end we are right here, to live a life of love, not fear.”
The theme of the 2019 Juneteenth Festival was abolitionist teaching, which Nunn said Scott embodied not only as a teacher at Beverly J. Martin and program leader at Southside but in everything she did.
“It’s the type of learning experiences that liberate you,” Nunn said, “that’s what Mama Scott did.”
Juneteenth is a celebration of the abolition of slavery in the United States, commemorating the day slaves in Texas learned they were free: June 19, 1865. That date is more than two years after abolition became the law of the land. “The truth is that two and a half years earlier, the Emancipation Proclamation had already been issued (January 1, 1863), but this information was withheld. It’s a celebration to honor the celebratory response from many Black people after discovering the truth about their freedom,” the event program reads.
Recounting trips with Scott to historic sites along the Underground Railroad, Washington honored the history of black people who fought to end slavery and secure their freedom. But Scott, she said, never treated abolition as a historical fact. Scott saw abolition as a long process, one that meant abolishing prisons and ICE and anything meant to suppress groups in our society.
“Abolishing privilege,” Washington said, was Scott’s life work.
Phoebe Brown, regional coordinator of the Alliance of Families for Justice, stepped into the role Scott long played by opening Saturday’s festivities with a libation, a ritual meant to awaken ancestors and bless those gathered, and then with the audience called out the names of ancestors: her mother, Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, Malcolm X, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, and Jacqueline Elizabeth Melton Scott.
Featured image: Youth performers from the Southside Community Center sing a tribute to Jackie Melton Scott. (Devon Magliozzi/Ithaca Voice)