I met Mrs. Erma Pauline Scott Bridgewater (1913-2013) in Spring, 2009, during my research visits to Bethel A.M.E. Church. She led a life of service, racial work, and local activism in Champaign, being, arguably, the most interviewed and celebrated local Black woman of the late 1900s. Born on November 24, 1913, her parents were Raymond Mack Scott (1892-1957) and Sarah Pauline Wilson Scott (1892-1991). Erma was the oldest child, but her brother Raymond (1916-1965) soon followed. Both siblings attended an otherwise all-white school, Lincoln School. Mr. and Mrs. Scott advocated for the use of the Champaign High School swimming pool for their children, but “separate but equal” prevailed, and the Scott children could swim after school only. Nevertheless, Erma became, and remained, an avid swimmer.
The family settled on 109 Ells Avenue in Champaign, a predominantly white neighborhood, owning their house. A faithful congregant, Raymond was a choir and Baraca Bible Class (for men) member at Bethel; he played the saxophone and led the band “Mack Scott and his Footwarmers.” Known to enjoy cigars, Raymond was a messenger for the University of Illinois, a common occupation for Black men then. Sarah moved to Champaign from Old Shawneetown in 1911, after her father had passed; she followed her mother, who had relocated here to work as a cook, a frequent position for Black women. Sarah was a member of the women’s Philathea Bible Class.
Raised in a literate, dignified, and churchgoing family, and following her father’s musical inclinations, Mrs. Bridgewater learned to play the piano, sang and played with her father’s band. Notably, upon her passing, she was the Bethel choir singer with the longest membership—over 70 years—though this is not as impressive as the length of her Bethel membership—close to 87 years. When Bethel held monthly lyceum meetings—literary evenings (ca. 1910-1930s), on Fridays, she sang solos; as part of the church’s choir, she participated in gymkhanas (festive race days) and at university and church events. In 1941, she married Cecil Bernard Bridgewater (1910-1980) from Tuscola, a gifted trumpet player and an upholsterer in town. The couple had three children, Cecil and Ronald, who became jazz musicians, and Cassandra, who would be a sociologist with a Master’s in Social Work from the University of Illinois.
Mrs. Bridgewater’s studies and work experiences were impacted by her race and gender. After graduating from Champaign High School in 1931, she attended the University of Illinois, which her parents had decided on for her, and completed her degree in Sociology in 1937. She was one of ten African American graduates that year. This was an outstanding accomplishment for a Black woman: she was a first-generation college graduate in her family. Furthermore, given the burdensome expense, and campus unfriendliness toward African Americans, hers was an instance of a people’s determination to succeed via education. Of her years at Illinois, she recalls they posed an economic struggle. To afford tuition, which in the early- to mid-1930s amounted to $35-$50 (or $656-$938, in today’s dollars), her mother washed clothes for students and her father waited tables; Erma cleaned houses, was a maid at parties and an attendant in checkrooms. Because campus restaurants refused (or delayed) service to African Americans, her lunch was “a Mr. Goodbar [chocolate candy] and an apple,” which she ate in the Library restroom. She was most embarrassed when an English teacher skipped her on roll call and held her back. The transition from receiving her diploma to being a maid in Newman Hall, where her mother worked, however humiliating, was a demonstration of her work ethic, and, sadly, a reminder of the local racial hierarchies.
Social and community work were clear vocations for her. She became the recreational planner for the Black soldiers who could not partake in these activities when stationed at Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, due to segregation. Two years after graduation, in 1939, she joined the Champaign Department of Recreation as Codirector of the Douglass Park Community Center, a position she maintained until 1942, when she voluntarily left to raise her children. She was mindful of her lack of expertise in recreation, and of the responsibilities that would be demanded from her as supervisor of Works Progress Administration workers, not always kind to her presence. Upon her return in 1955, she was made the Assistant Director, a position she maintained until 1962. But when the administration elected a man to work with her, and when she knew that his salary exceeded hers, the woman who knew her value too well resigned, thus ending 24 years of affiliation. She kept herself busy as a proofreader for the Urbana Daily Courier; but about a year later she started working for the city of Champaign as a Relocation Officer for Urban Renewal and as a Housing Specialist for the Community Development Program. In these areas, she excelled. Being active in urban renewal, Mrs. Bridgewater was invited to discuss public housing and relocation on a panel of city and university experts, in about 1967, preserved on a WILL-TV recording. Serious, wearing a beige skirt-suit and a dark pearl necklace, she calmly notes the poor quality of some older public units that needed serious updates; she further observes “there is a great need for much … more public housing in Champaign, [but that her] first responsibility [in renewal] is for the people we’re displacing.”
Longevity runs in the maternal side of her family; she had hoped to reach her 100th birthday on November 24, 2013, but sadly passed on April 2. Thoughtful, at times pensive, not always the most outspoken, but a volunteer picketer against J. C. Penney’s policy refusing sales positions to Blacks (in April, 1961), she was generous with her memories. She was indeed a “quiet revolutionary,” per her son Cecil’s view. She represents, in mine, the embodiment of lived experience marked by racial affiliations and discrimination.
Dr. Vanessa Rouillon has contributed previous pieces on remarkable Champaign-Urbana African American men and women. These excerpts will be part of a longer manuscript project celebrating African American struggles and contributions toward full citizenship.