Historian, athlete, and professor Otey Matthew Scruggs was born in the seaport town of Vallejo, California, on June 29, 1929 but reared in Santa Barbara. He was the son of Otey Scruggs and Maude Smith Scruggs. He had one sister, Consuelo Scruggs Devereaux. Scruggs attended Franklin Elementary School, Santa Barbara Junior High, and graduated from Santa Barbara High School in 1948, where he excelled academically and athletically.
From 1948 to 1952, Scruggs served in the United States Navy Reserves simultaneously during his studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) and later at Harvard University. During his undergraduate years at UCSB, he played basketball and ran track. Because of his achievements he was inducted into the Gaucho Hall of Fame in 1951. That same year, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics from UCSB and the following year, a Master of Arts degree in history from Harvard University where he studied the Bracero/Mexican farm labor situation in the U.S. Southwest. That research led to his first publication, “Texas and the Bracero Program, 1942-1947” in Pacific Historical Review in 1963.
Scruggs married Barbara Fitzgerald from Santa Barbara, a nurse practitioner and a member of Links, Inc. They had one son, Jeffrey, who was born in 1965.
After earning the Ph.D. degree in history from Harvard University in 1958, Scruggs taught American History at UCSB until 1965. That same year, 36-year-old Scruggs left his faculty position to join the Peace Corps, where he served in Ecuador for four years. In 1969, he accepted a position at Syracuse University and taught his specialty 19th-century American history and African American history. Scruggs was chair of the History Department from 1986 to 1990, the first African American to hold that post. During his 21 years at Syracuse he worked with a number of graduate students in both African American and immigration history.
In 1988, Scruggs published Wetbacks and the Farm Labor Problem: A History of Mexican Agricultural Labor in the U.S. 1942–1954 a work based mostly on his dissertation. In 1995, Scruggs received the Syracuse University Chancellor’s Citation for Exceptional Academic Achievement. He was also on the Editorial Board of the Association for the Study of African American Life & History (ASALH), the leading organization of historians of Black America, from 1996 to 2014.
Dr. Otey Matthew Scruggs died on February 14, 2014, in a retirement community in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania. At the time of his death, he was 85. In 2017, in honor of Dr. Scruggs, “The Otey and Barbara Scruggs Scholarship Fund” was established and endowed by his son to ensure that Syracuse University’s Maxwell School, would continue recruiting the best the brightest graduate students. Also in 2014 the Department of History at Syracuse University created an annual lecture series in his honor.