CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (Sept. 11, 2017) – On the first Sunday morning after Booker Scruggs passed away, a woman picked up her saxophone and stood at the front of the church where he used to stand. She played one of his favorite songs, “To God be the Glory,” filling the huge hole that Booker Scruggs left behind at Bethlehem-Wiley United Methodist Church.
“I tried my best to mimic him, to make it sound like Booker,” said Elizabeth Sharpe. “I closed my eyes and his spirit was with me.”
On the same day, Sharpe, age 28, joined the church and became a United Methodist. She also assumed the role Scruggs held for decades, as the resident musician who played the worship prelude at Bethlehem-Wiley.
"Booker will always be missed but he will always be remembered,” said the Rev. Willie Kitchens, Bethlehem-Wiley pastor. “He was a humble spirit and a man of God.”
The late musician, who mentored generations of young people through his church and career, would be pleased to know Sharpe didn’t miss a beat by stepping behind his music stand on Sunday mornings, Kitchens said.
“If Booker wasn’t going to be at church, I was the first person he would call,” Kitchens said. “I can certainly say that everyone was surprised by what happened. We saw him at church on that Sunday morning. He said he enjoyed the message.”
Booker T. Scruggs II, age 74, died June 5 after falling ill during a Sunday afternoon concert at St. Luke United Methodist Church in Chattanooga. He was a clarinetist and saxophonist, a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga professor of sociology, former director of Upward Bound, and a former TV show host and producer.
“If you saw Booker on the street, he was the same person that you saw in church,” said the Rev. Donald Daniels. “He was always one who would be a bearer of good news. He wouldn’t give you a sob story.”
Scruggs was the descendant of a long line of Methodists who were devoted to Bethlehem-Wiley, formerly the Wiley Memorial United Methodist Church, Daniels said.
“His mother, his grandmother, and his great-grandmother were all members of the church,” said Daniels, a retired pastor who now worships at Bethlehem-Wiley after pastoring the church 1982-1987 and 1996-2000.
According to Holston Conference historians, the downtown church was established by African American Methodist Episcopalians in 1867, the first black congregation in East Tennessee. The now 130-year-old building was listed on the National Register for Historic Places in 1979.
Booker’s mother, Mabel Scruggs, was well-known and respected in her own right as an educator and civil-rights activist. The great-granddaughter of a slave, Mabel Scruggs died in 2013 at the age of 104.
“Booker’s mother was very active in the church,” Daniels said. “Every church has an unofficial leader, and Booker’s mother was the unofficial leader. His grandmother was, too. They knew how to get things done.”
Booker grew up in the church and followed his mother’s example as a loyal member. “He was always willing to do anything you asked,” Daniels said.
His father, Booker Scruggs Sr., was also a United Methodist, active at Hurst United Methodist Church.
Scruggs Jr. was particularly focused on helping young people, often donating proceeds from his CDs and concerts to benefit the youth ministry at Bethlehem-Wiley. “His passion for music helped fund his passion for our youth ministry,” Kitchens said.
In addition to teaching as an adjunct professor of sociology at UTC from 1969 until his death, Scruggs served as director of Upward Bound from 1970 to 2006. The federally funded program helps high school students from low-income families prepare for college, according to UTC media relations.
When Scruggs died, numerous people remarked how his commitment and encouragement had changed lives.
“Mr. Booker Scruggs was a very special man to all us,” one former student wrote on Facebook. “Even as adults he still kept in contact with us to make sure we were still doing well.”
“… He seemingly integrated gracefully into a system that had strongly opposed admission of African American students,” an admirer wrote of his early years with Upward Bound. “Being a sophomore at UTC during this time, it was inspiring to see minority staff and fellow students succeed.” (Story continues below.)
In the days following his death, the Chattanooga media celebrated Scruggs’ gifts and accomplishments while mourning his passing.
Before graduating from Howard High School in 1960, Scruggs joined classmates in fighting for civil rights by staging “sit-ins” at whites-only lunch counters in downtown Chattanooga.
In 1970, he was recruited by WDEF to host a local public affairs show, “Point of View,” which he continued to produce until 2011.
He was perhaps best known for his jazz, gospel and inspirational music, as he performed solo and with groups such as the Chattanooga Gospel Orchestra, Spectrum, and the Booker T. Scruggs Ensemble throughout his hometown and nation.
The beloved musician was playing with the ensemble that was named after him when he collapsed at St. Luke United Methodist on June 4.
The Rev. Evelyn Harris, St. Luke pastor, said the sanctuary was brimming that day with people who came to hear “some of the finest music this city has to offer.”
However, “energy and excitement” quickly turned to “fear and sadness” as nurses from the audience and then first responders rushed to help Scruggs.
“The audience stayed calm and collected,” she said. “As Booker was rushed to the hospital, the remaining trio played to allow the ambulance space to leave without the interference of a flood of cars.”
The crowd prayed and wiped away tears as William Price, Greg Malone, and Nancy Westmoreland (a member at Stanley United Methodist) played on, Harris said.
“Even in his sudden illness, Booker unknowingly led a crowd to worship, just as he often did,” Harris said. Scruggs died the next day.
When Elizabeth Sharpe received a text message that Scruggs had died, she was shocked. "At the time I was playing in a band in Tracy, California," she said. “I came back to Tennessee to honor him.”
The saxophonist had met Scruggs through Kitchens, also a well-known Chattanooga musician and worship leader at Christ United Methodist Church. Scruggs invited her to play with his bands and at Bethlehem-Wiley. He encouraged her, she said, and was intrigued by her talent.
“He’s such a cool guy,” Sharpe said. “I was thinking about it before, but on that Sunday after he died, God put it on my heart to join the church. All I can say is that I felt closely connected to him at that moment.”
Fund established, concert scheduled in Scruggs memory (The Call, 9/11/17)
Remembering Booker Scruggs (WDEF, 6/5/17)
Chattanoogans mourn death of Booker Scruggs (Nooga, 6/5/17)
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.