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Lottie B. Scott legacy, dreams and all, preserved in paper

Norwich — Lottie B. Scott has always been a dreamer.

That creativity and insight helped shape her rise from Longtown, S.C., farm girl to a host of leadership positions over more than half a century, including president of the Norwich Branch of the NAACP and chairman of the Backus Hospital board of trustees.

Now, the 84-year-old is donating to the University of Connecticut Library a legacy in paper that surprises even the visionary herself.

Rebecca Parmer, head of the UConn Library's archives and special collections, said the Lottie B. Scott collection includes personal history as well as letters, meeting minutes and newspaper clippings chronicling the Norwich Branch of the NAACP from the 1960s through the early 2010s. Other folders contain documents from her years with the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, her time with various organizations and boards, and mementos from a lifelong fascination with the arts.

The collection includes hundreds of pages, photos, binders and scrapbooks.

Scott, the eldest of eight children, was born in 1936 to Estelle Stone Bell and Joe Bell Jr. She said her mother taught them by example to work hard and keep praying.

Scott recalled being bedridden with rheumatic fever when she was 12 years old, at the same time her father became too ill to tend fields heavy with clay.

"My mother had to plow the fields," she said. "She was pregnant, but yet she had to plow."

There was little food in their house or anywhere else, she said. Not when they were poor and everyone around them was, too. The only thing they had to eat was a type of bread that scratched their throats.

"My mother said, 'keep praying, keep praying.' And we continued," she said.

Scott's youngest sister, the one still in her mother's belly while the fields were being plowed during that difficult season, grew up to become a lawyer.

"Our family accomplished dreams that we couldn't dream," Scott said.

A Norwich resident since 1957, she moved north with her son after a failed marriage. She said she made a conscious decision not to remain with a husband she felt was not treating her fairly. So she joined her father and others from South Carolina who had traded the overt racism of the South for a new home where she came to understand "all the tricks people do to discriminate against people."

Amid warnings that there were no jobs for a young Black woman in cities, Scott got her professional start at Norwich State Hospital as a clerk typist before she moved on to become a neighborhood resource worker with the state human rights commission around 1970. She worked there for 22 years, retiring as a regional manager.

Meanwhile, she built her reputation as an advocate for civil rights, education and the arts. In addition to her role as founding member and past president of the Norwich Branch of the NAACP, she served in the same capacities with the Norwich Arts Center. She has been a member of the Norwich Rotary Club for over 20 years and is a lifetime member of the Norwich Historical Society.

One of the strengths that helped establish her as a leader at the time, and which will preserve her legacy in perpetuity, was an affinity for recording history as it happened.

"I was a good secretary. I kept the notes well," she said. "I wrote and I wrote."

Her efforts at preserving history include her self-published memoir, "Deep South - Deep North: A Family's Journey," which came out in 2018.

Among Scott's many recognitions are the University of Connecticut Presidential Humanitarian Award, the Connecticut State Conference NAACP Branch W.E.B. Dubois Lifetime Achievement Award and the Eastern Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the Year Award.

Dreaming and talking

Scott said the turning point in her civil rights activism occurred when she was a 16-year-old in desegregation-era South Carolina. She had just arrived back at school after an absence to find out that police had been threatening Black students with arrest for attending school.

She said the students, who had already identified her as a leader, told her they would have stoned the police if she had been there with them.

"Oh no," she recalled telling the other students, her voice emphatic. "Don't ever go and try to stone the police. You'll get killed."

It changed her life to know that people would listen to her, she said — "and how with one little rock, some of us could've been killed."

"So right then and there, I knew I had a voice and I was going to be careful about how I would use that voice," she said.

Shiela Hayes, the current Norwich Branch NAACP president, was 3 years old when she first met Scott. Hayes said her mother, and then Hayes herself, came to rely on Scott as a key figure when issues of race needed to be addressed in the city.

Hayes highlighted a conflict in the 1970s when local NAACP efforts to talk about changes at Norwich Free Academy were being rebuffed by the school. According to Hayes, Scott was instrumental in opening the lines of communication with an institution that had been closed off on conversations about race.

Scott, who called herself "outspoken" in times of conflict, said she finally had someone to talk with upon the arrival of the school's eighth headmaster, Joseph Levanto.

"Got a problem? Let's talk," she said, describing a philosophy shared by Levanto. "I think NFA and the NAACP have been talking ever since."

The Lottie B. Scott papers, which preserve written remnants of so many conversations on diversity over the years, will be invaluable now that the city has declared racism a public health crisis, Hayes said.

The Norwich City Council on July 19 approved a resolution to address the effects of racism in areas including hiring practices, access to health care, education, housing and city services. The resolution, proposed by Alderman Derell Wilson and co-sponsored by the council's four Democrats, calls for the formation of a health equity committee to work on the 13 action points listed in the resolution.

These are issues Scott has been talking about since the 1970s, according to Hayes. The papers will help the committee move forward with as much history and context as possible.

"It'll be critical that we don't keep reinventing the wheel," Hayes said.

She credited Scott for her foresight in donating the documents. She said there have been other leaders in the city, like 30-year Norwich Branch NAACP President Jacqueline Owens, who had many stories that departed with them.

"When (Owens) passed away all the sudden, a lot of her original work was not saved, or we don't know what happened to it. So we've lost a lot of that history," Hayes said.

Opportunity to create

Parmer, the UConn archivist, said some folders in the Scott collection contain playbills, posters and other items from local cultural productions.

"She was especially interested when Black artists were performing," Parmer said.

Scott, whose home is decorated with paintings, drawings, photographs and sculptures from myriad cultures, said her tenure as president of the local NAACP branch included trips to theaters and museums with kids from the city.

"Playing basketball, doing all these other things are wonderful," she said. "But I find, in my opinion, the arts are a healing mechanism, an opportunity to create."

On one memorable trip, she brought a group of students to a performance of the multiracial Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. She said many of the children who had never seen a live show could not believe the dancers on the stage were real people.

"They were so thrilled," she said. "It's been one of my joys to be able to take these young people to an event, and they are so well behaved. Because they know if you don't behave, you ain't going on another trip."

More recently, Scott served as vice chairwoman of the city's Ellis Walter Ruley Committee, which culminated in 2018 with the dedication of a park in memory of the local African American folk artist whose colorful, dreamlike paintings defied his daily struggles with racism.

In 2014, she was honored by the Norwich Arts Center when it named its first jazz concert series "Miss Lottie's Jazz Cafe."

She laughed when asked if she was an artist herself.

"No," she said. "Just a dreamer."

e.regan@theday.com

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