A popular African American attorney in Omaha rose to great heights at the beginning of the 20th century. After becoming the first African American graduate to earn a Bachelor of Laws degree from the University of Illinois in 1907, he became the first Black candidate for the office of Douglas County Public Defender and the first African American District Attorney in Nebraska in 1920. This is a biography of Amos Potter Scruggs (1875-1946).
Born on January 16, 1895 in Shipman, Illinois, Scruggs went to After attending Litchfield High School in Litchfield, Illinois. Starting as a waiter in a barber shop, Scruggs was young when he became a Pullman porter. While working that job, in 1906 he married Mary Fitzgerald Scruggs (1861-1958). Amos Scruggs attended night school at the University of Illinois College of Law in Champaign, where became the first African American graduate to earn a Bachelor of Laws degree in 1907.
In 1908, he and his wife moved to Omaha and became a salesman. In 1914, he was admitted to the Nebraska Bar. There’s no word on what kept him from being a lawyer when he initially moved to Omaha, or why he moved to Omaha in the first place. However, he spent six years after graduation as a salesman before he started practicing law.
As an attorney, he practiced in local, state and federal court. Representing a variety of civil and criminal cases, he was active in the Civil Rights movement and other civic activities, too. He was a member of St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church and Iroquois Elks Lodge #92, and throughout his years in Omaha, he lived at 2310 North 22nd Avenue and 3807 Camden Avenue.
In summer 1916, he was involved in a protest action against City of Omaha Parks Commissioner Joseph Hummell, who ordered the Omaha Municipal Beach at Carter Lake to be segregated. Commissioner Hummel rescinded his order when Scruggs handed him a copy of the Nebraska Civil Rights Act of 1893.
Later in 1916, Scruggs was appointed as the City of Omaha Inspector of Weights and Measures after John Grant Pegg died in office. He was the second African American in Omaha city government after Pegg.
The next year in 1920, he ran as a Republican for Douglas County Public Defender, “enlivening” the race but ultimately losing. Staying involved with the party, he ran again in 1928.
After losing that race, he moved back to Illinois where he continued to practice law. His wife Mary continued living in Omaha. In Chicago, Amos Scruggs ran for the US House of Representatives in 1930 and lost. In 1939, he was appointed the Assistant State District Attorney in Chicago, and by 1943 he was the Cook County Assistant Cooperation Counsel.
Amos Scruggs died in Chicago on January 27, 1946. He is buried with family members at Elmwood Cemetery in his hometown of Litchfield, Illinois. Mary Scruggs bought back the original house they lived at North 22nd Avenue after Amos in 1946, just after Amos died. She passed away in 1958.
In 2007, the University of Illinois College of Law began awarding the Amos Potter Scruggs Leadership Award to African American students in honor of Scruggs’ trailblazing role there.
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