Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

School name finalist: Frances Scott, Spokane’s first Black female attorney, championed education, civil rights

Frances Scott teaches a class at Rogers High in 1989.  (Spokesman-Review photo archives)

Editor’s note: The Spokane school board is expected to pick the names of three new middle schools on Wednesday. This story is part of a series examining the finalists for those names.

So the story goes, Spokane hospitals wouldn’t hire Black nurses in the early 1920s.

That’s reportedly why Marie Maley went from working as a nurse at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta to becoming a night cook in a house of prostitution in Spokane sometime after she and her family made the move to Washington. Making just $12 per week, Maley made do as a single mother raising four children – including Frances Scott, born in 1921.

Scott would grow up to become the first Black woman in Spokane to qualify to practice law, a longtime educator and a local civil rights champion.

She was a former president of the Spokane Education Association and the Washington State University Board of Regents. She’s also regarded as the first Black person and woman to serve on the city’s Civil Service Commission.

Scott worked with the local NAACP to increase jobs for Black people throughout Spokane. In 1978, Scott said Black teachers were important not only as role models for Black students, but also for white students “who need to see Blacks in some roles other than scrubbing floors.”

She didn’t see Black people in professional roles growing up in Spokane like she did in Georgia, where she lived for a year at age 14.

“I sometimes wonder if all of the struggles in the ’60s and ’70s accomplished anything,” Scott said during an Eastern Washington University function in 1982, “but then I look around Spokane and see progress has been made.”

Scott lived through it.

She could recall how Spokane dentists would only work on Black people after hours “so we wouldn’t chase the clientele away.” She had her appendix removed in a private room to keep her away from white patients.

One of her most famous childhood stories was of when she and two white students from Marycliff High School went to the Davenport Hotel to interview famous opera singer Marian Anderson for the student newspaper. The staff barred her from taking the standard lift upstairs, so she and the other students had to take the freight elevator.

“My white friends – bless their hearts – decided if I had to ride the freight elevator, they would, too,” Scott said. “But when we finally got upstairs, we couldn’t find Marian Anderson. As it turned out, she hadn’t been allowed to stay in the Davenport because she was Black. We finally found her around the corner at the little Pemberton Hotel.”

Scott moved on from Marycliff to Holy Names College, eventually earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English and sociology from Whitworth College (now Whitworth University).

She passed the bar exam in 1979, one year removed from earning a Juris Doctor from Gonzaga University. At the time Scott was sworn in to practice law, there were 17 other Black women in the state of Washington licensed to practice.

Scott was more than 20 years into her teaching career at Rogers High School by that point. Hired in 1958, Scott taught English and German. By 1989, she was also teaching English in Fort Wright College’s Upward Bound Program.

According to The Spokesman-Review archives, Scott was the only Black teacher in 1978 at Rogers High School, which had just 18 Black students amid a total enrollment of 1,680. The district was 27 years removed from hiring its first Black teacher, Eugene Breckenridge.

There were only 18 Black teachers, including Scott, across Spokane School District 81, according to December 1977 school district data.

“I am not satisfied and I won’t be until things have moved faster,” she then said. “I don’t think the district should pat itself on the back. … It’s got a long ways to go before it gets to where it needs to be, even in very minimal terms.”

Among her concerns was the revival of groups including the Ku Klux Klan, advocating for non-violent militancy.

“We must exercise some degree of militancy … against slumlords, against Klansmen, against people who want no minorities in their neighborhoods, against racist textbooks and against politicians who thrive on bigotry,” Scott said in 1982. “Otherwise, people will say in the future, ‘You were there. What did you do about it?’”

Scott lived in Spokane approximately 70 years before leaving in 1991.

By 2000, Scott was living in Port Orchard where she worked as a mediator in divorce cases. As keynote speaker during that year’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Remembrance at Spokane Community College, Scott had the crowd repeat after her, “I will not let the dream die.’’

“We have made progress, but we have not reached the end of the journey,’’ Scott said. “Dr. King’s dream is not a reality yet. But as long as we are moving in the direction of the dream, we will succeed.’’

She died when she was 88 years old on Oct. 12, 2010, at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tacoma.