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VIProfile: Madelyn Scales Harris

Mama always said I was just like my Daddy, a public servant,” said Madelyn Scales Harris. “That’s why I got into politics, even though I swore I never would because of everything that Daddy went through being the first black man on the Murfreesboro City Council.”

The Scales family have long been trailblazers in Rutherford County. Harris’ grandfather, Henry Preston Scales, opened the first African-American owned funeral home in the county. Her father, Robert Winston “Tee-Niny” Scales was not only the first black man to serve on the Murfreesboro City Council, but he was also the first black Vice-Mayor. Her mother, Mary Scales, followed her husband onto the City Council, becoming the first black woman to serve on that body and she was the first black faculty member at Middle Tennessee State University. Harris herself became the first female black Vice-Mayor. 

“We are a family of servants,” said Harris, “but it has been hard.”

She remembers the crosses being burned on the front lawn of their home as a child after her father’s election, as well as the bricks flying through the front windows and the death threats her father received. They had to have the windows replaced so many times, that Jack’s Glass Shop stopped charging them and the owner would just drive by their house every day and if the window was broken, he’d replace it, embarrassed by what others had done. When the haters started breaking the windows at the front of Scales and Sons Funeral Home, the family had the entry redesigned to be all brick. 

“I asked Daddy why he put up with all of that,” said Harris, “and he said we had to be where God placed us.”

“Tee-Niny,” as Harris’ father was called, truly got into politics to serve his community. He was the kind of man who would give a stranger in need the shirt off his back and he did, literally. As well as his suit jacket and car.

“One night, Mama saw Daddy leave the house in a suit and drive off in our station wagon,” Harris recalled. “He came back a while later on foot. No jacket. No car. Mama asked what he did. He said that there had been a family in trouble with a broken-down car. When he was helping them, the father had told Tee-Niny that he liked his shirt and jacket. So, he took it off and gave it to the man. Then he gave him the car and told them to return it after they no longer needed it because their own was fixed. Mama was furious with him. She told him that we needed that car to transport us six kids around. Daddy told her it would be fine.”

It was fine. The man turned out to be the new minister at Key Chapel. Once his family car was fixed, he returned the station wagon to the Scales Family.

“That was my Daddy,” added Harris. “He did things like that all the time. He even buried people who couldn’t pay, just as my grandfather did when he started Helping Hands Burial Association to provide a burial place for people who didn’t have the funds to pay for a funeral. Granddaddy even received a plot of land from Evergreen Cemetery to bury these people.”

Not only did she learn about giving from her father, but she also learned about politics. Her parents would talk about what was happening on the City Council and in the community at the dinner table and Harris would listen to their discussions. It was then that she vowed never to get into politics, everything they discussed was not easy to deal with. Harris often asked why about many of the issues, feeling that the way things were at the time was just not right. 

Harris chose to work for State Farm for most of her life and stay away from politics. She quit that job to care for her mother full time as she lay dying, assisted by her siblings. And, after her mother’s death, she worked for Hospice until COVID-19 came along. She is now retired. 

“Mama was my rock,” added Harris.

When Harris was approached to run for Murfreesboro City Council initially, she said no. But, after being asked over and over and over again, she gave in. Her mother was who she went to for advice and who stood by her side during that first election. Mary Scales told her daughter to run the entire campaign as if she was 200 votes behind and to meet as many people as she could. She did as her mother suggested and was floored when she won the election. 

On her death bed, Mary Scales was still giving her daughter advice and strength to carry on after her death. 

“She gave me a poem by Edgar A. Guest called ‘Don’t Quit,’” said Harris. “I keep it on the mirror in my bathroom and look at it every day. I made a copy of the original and highlighted the words my mother underlined. Those lines were, ‘…stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit, it’s when things seem worst that you must not quit.’”

While Mary Scales has been a rock for her daughter, Harris has tried to be the same for her constituency. 

“I don’t want to stop being on the council,” added Harris. “There is so much more to do.”

She would like to see an increase in voter registration; and there are issues relating to affordable housing, traffic and diversity that all cities are currently facing that she hopes to address with her fellow council members. Plus, she has a soft spot in her heart for educators, as her mother was one and both of her parents served on the Murfreesboro City School Board. 

“At 71,” said Harris,” I still wonder what my purpose is in life. I know I am a servant leader, but my dream job now would be to be a public speaker. That is what I want to start doing. I have such a story to tell.”

Indeed, she has experienced much since the day of her birth, which was the day that General McArthur was in town. It was an event to be remembered, as the blocked streets almost forced her mother to give birth on the sidewalk as she and her husband tried to get to Rutherford Hospital. Harris has lived through segregation and integration. She has suffered in the hands of racism and sexism. She had three of her siblings die young, one from complications related to her special needs and another committed suicide. Plus, she has recently suffered a heart attack and has fought Paraneoplastic Syndrome and survived. 

“I think that is why I want to keep serving,” said Harris. “I understand people’s suffering because I have gone through so much. Now, I want to tell my story and let others know I understand. And, that you can go on. It is not always easy, but it is possible.” 

She says that no one gets to where they are by themselves and she is thankful for her family, her friends and neighbors and those who have elected her. She appreciates their love, prayers and unwavering belief in her.

“We never know when we’re gonna leave this place,” said Harris. “I want to leave at peace, knowing that I have helped people. If I can help someone as I pass along, then my living is not in vain.”

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