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A mother's (tough) love Scott credits his single mother for rise from poverty to national stage

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A mother's (tough) love Scott credits his single mother for rise from poverty to national stage

Frances and Tim Scott shared a tender moment after she drew No. 44, her son's high school football number, in the congressional office lottery on Capitol Hill when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010.

As a kid, Tim Scott badly wanted to fit in with the majority white kids at Stall High School, and the black kids, too. And he didn't want any outward signs of his family's poverty.

A pair of Converse high tops were the ticket.

But his mom said no. A single mother toiling long hours as a nursing assistant, Frances Scott couldn't afford them. She wouldn't have bought them even if she could, much as she disliked the winds of fashion.

"Oh yes, we had strong conversations about that! He was going to convince me to buy these shoes," Frances recalled last week.

From the living room couch of his Hanahan home, Scott turned to grin at her: "I always was a salesman."

Frances still didn't buy the shoes.

"You have to live within your means and be who you are," she warned, then and now. "You can't always fit in."

Unwelcome as the advice was to the teenager, Scott later embraced it in the fiscal conservatism that has propelled his rapid rise up the political ladder to become South Carolina's first black U.S. senator. And as a black Republican, he often doesn't fit in.

Thanks to Frances, he said, he's comfortable with that.

A private man with an even more private mother, Scott sat down with The Post and Courier the morning after his historic election Tuesday to talk about their relationship and its role in his ascent to the national stage.

Frances Scott was by his side, as she so often has been through the years.

It's election night, and Frances arrives at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center with her 94-year-old father on her arm. Close family follow, skirting the crowd unnoticed.

They meet Scott backstage and huddle for a quiet prayer. Scott clutches the speech he will deliver. Frances clutches a cellphone behind her back, expression calm, one foot tapping.

"I'm gonna cry," she says softly.

With cameras flashing, Scott heads for the stage with Frances at his side, where she's often been during the decade he's gone from Charleston County councilman to U.S. senator. He steps up and thanks God. He thanks his granddaddy. He thanks an aunt who helped buy them Christmas presents when they couldn't afford them.

"I'm saving the best for last," he says. "If you've heard my story, you have heard of Frances Scott." He calls her an American hero.

"To every kid growing up in poverty wondering if fitting in means dumbing down, the answer is no," he says. "To every single mom who struggles to make ends meet, who wonders if her efforts are in vain, they are not."

He turns toward Frances.

"To moms like mine who worked 16 hours a day and came home and looked at my report card and said, 'Unacceptable,'" he recalls, pausing. "Well, she did more than that. But she did say 'Unacceptable.'"

People laugh, cameras click.

"Many view this election as historic. My skin color is often times talked about. Sometimes too much. Some say I talk about race too little," he says. "Tonight, I want to talk about it for just a moment."

He notes his grandfather went from picking cotton to having a grandson in the U.S. Senate.

"One lifetime," Scott says. "That's the story of America."

The crowd - mostly white, roughly a fifth black - cheers loudly. In a nod to black leaders - perhaps even the NAACP, which gives him an "F" score on its annual civil rights report card each year - Scott mentions John Lewis, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Cleveland Sellers and others who "blazed a path and made this possible."

But, he says, so did people who started "voting conviction and not the color of your skin."

"Don't let anyone define you but you," he warns. "You have a responsibility to be yourself, whatever that means, whatever box you fit into."

He ends with a promise: "This is a debate I am going to engage in."

As people applaud and press forward to shake his hand and take pictures, Frances stands quietly off to his right.

Later, she marvels to herself: "God, look what you have done."

When she looks at her son, Frances still sees a little boy with crooked front teeth, one she kept close by her at church so he wouldn't doze off or squirm in front of the preacher.

She sees a boy who picked her flowers from a neighbor's yard on the way home from school and who at 15 secretly put a pink dress on layaway for her because he thought she'd look pretty in it.

"Tim has always been that person who will give to you," Frances says. "It's a part of who he is, part of his character."

Scott, who at 49 isn't married, admits with no apology to being a momma's boy.

Perhaps it began when Frances and her husband divorced. Tim was 7 and his older brother, Ben, was 9. They moved from Michigan to North Charleston, packing into a tiny house with her parents, who became key figures to the boys and a life preserver for Frances. The five crammed into a drafty 1,000-square-foot rental in a lower middle-class neighborhood on a dirt street. Frances and her young sons shared one bedroom.

Frances also landed a job as a nursing assistant at what today is St. Francis Bon Secours Hospital. Perhaps no single indicator tells more about Frances Scott than the fact that 40 years later, five years past retirement age, she still holds that job, one that involves bathing patients, cleaning up body fluids and showing care to people who suffer, all for minimal pay.

A down-to-earth woman with a warm and ready laugh, she often toiled 16-hour days to support her boys. Eventually, she could afford to move out into their own place on Stall Road.

Her older son was naturally disciplined and obeyed well. Then there was Tim.

While the other boys hung out in back of the church on Sundays, she kept Tim right beside her in the second row from the pulpit at Morris Street Baptist Church, near his Granny, right where Frances could deliver a quick pinch as needed.

Tim was the one who, when she said, "You can be on the porch, but don't go off the porch," he'd nod and say, "Yes, ma'am."

"All you had to do was turn your head, and you knew he was gonna move," she says.

When Scott was about 10 years old, he and his brother begged Frances to let them stay home alone while she went to work.

She set clear rules: The boys were not to go outside, and nobody was to come inside, not even on the long, boring days of summer.

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"If I call and you do not answer the phone on the first ring, I am getting off and coming home, and we will have a discussion. And it won't be very nice," she recalls telling them.

Sometimes the discussions would involve a switch. But not always.

At least not the time when Scott lit a fire in a house or when he stuck pencils into an outlet or when he tried to jump over some trash cans outside on his bike - and missed.

What brought on the switch? A lie or disrespect.

Frances would order the boys to pick their punishment from one of the tough, skinny trees outside. Scott met the switch at least three or four times.

"They were instructive," Scott says.

What led to those meetings? "My inability to keep my mouth shut," Scott says.

Frances nods in agreement. "I love you. But I also love you enough to set rules. My goal for my children was that they would not be on a street corner."

Her only true panic moment came when he was 12 years old playing football. A tackle left him seriously injured. First responders cut off his clothes and rushed him to a hospital. Doctors said he'd broken his neck.

Frances and her family prayed and prayed. That night, his Granny had a dream. In it, she saw a plate fall and break in half. But when she picked it up, the plate was whole.

The next day, Scott and his mom recall, a scan showed his neck wasn't broken after all.

Back then, Stall High was 70 percent white, a middle-class school fed by the area's military bases. Scott entered on the heels of a popular older brother alongside his longtime friends.

As a freshman, he ran varsity track and was elected vice president of the student council. All through high school, he excelled at sports and served in leadership roles. People signed his yearbook with things like Dear Mayor Scott.

Yet, he also found hate notes with racial slurs in his locker. He'd hear them on the football field. He struggled.

"It was more of just an accumulation of life," he says. "My mom worked a lot. I think I was starved for attention and not paying attention in class."

He also didn't fully fit in with the white kids or the black kids. It didn't help that his two front teeth "didn't like each other."

He came home with failing grades in four classes: English, Spanish, world geography and civics.

When he had to take summer school, the bill was $265 - money Frances didn't have. She was blunt: If it happened again, the family wouldn't suffer because he hadn't bothered to work hard. He would have to repeat the grade.

"After that, he was all right," Frances says, smiling.

Frances took her boys to church every Sunday. But three days after his 18th birthday, Scott accepted Jesus with a whole new fervor. He was at Presbyterian College on a partial football scholarship and admits to becoming a bit of a religious zealot.

"It changed my life," he recalls. "I became a different person the next day."

Over the months, he mellowed a bit "to be more flexible, to realize people experience a connection to the Lord differently than I do," he adds.

Eventually, he transferred to Charleston Southern University, graduated and opened an Allstate insurance business. He joined Seacoast Church instead of a predominantly black church.

He also jumped into local politics, figuring he could shoot for something high one day - mayor even.

In 1995, he ran for Charleston County Council and won. Frances was elated. Her little boy was elected chairman.

"Oh my God, this is amazing!" she recalls thinking at the time.

He stayed on council for 13 years and made key connections.

"I had the sense from his first campaign that he could rise to any level the Lord led him to," said Joe McKeown, a close friend who has run most of his campaigns. "There wasn't a shadow of a doubt in my mind."

In 2009, Scott won election to the state House of Representatives. Then he beat Paul Thurmond, son of one-time segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond, to win a seat in the U.S. House as the first black congressional Republican from the Deep South since Reconstruction.

The Congressional Black Caucus invited Scott to join. He declined. It irritated many Africans-Americans, to whom he replied: "My campaign was never about race."

Still, he's been called an Uncle Tom and an opportunist more than once. Earlier this year, a North Carolina NAACP leader, the Rev. William Barber, called Scott a "dummy" to the white man's ventriloquist. Former NAACP President Benjamin Jealous last year accused Scott of not believing in civil rights.

Three years later, when Gov. Nikki Haley chose Scott to replace U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, who did he credit? His mother.

"I am very thankful to the good Lord, and to a strong mom who believed that sometimes love has to come at the end of a switch. And she loved me a lot," Scott said at the time. "My mother did not quit on me."

Scott isn't known for talking about race. He hasn't wanted to be defined by it either. But now he plans to talk more about how race too often equates with a culture of low expectations.

"It's a dangerous shift in a small segment of the community that says in order be cool or fit in you have to dumb down," he says.

They are the same pressures he felt growing up, ones he hopes he can challenge, as his mother did with him.

"We're at a tipping point. I'm not trying to get kids to be liberal or conservative. I just want them to think," Scott says. "The Lord is leading me to address the inequality that exists in some of the poorer communities. There is this overwhelming desire to be accepted. And your response to that desire might be catastrophic to your future."

After all, instead of heading to the U.S. Senate, Scott could have flunked out of school, or wound up in jail, or struggling just to get by in the world.

But he didn't, he hasn't, not with Frances at his side reminding him: "You are not going to be like the average person."

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes

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