Civil Servant, Community Activist Provided for Others
by Patricia Sullivan, Washington Post
Marguerite H. Mott, 88, who with her husband established a community center that helped bring water, sewer and social services to their neglected corner of Fairfax County, died of cancer Sept. 15 at her home in the Lewis Park area of Fairfax.
Mrs. Mott and her husband, James, set up the community center in 1969. Originally a log cabin behind their home, the center later added two adjoining trailers and finally a permanent facility in 1995 that was named the James and Marguerite Mott Community Center.
The couple were their own social services agency, buying food and clothing in bulk from discount centers, storing and distributing the goods to any neighborhood resident who needed a hand.
One of Mrs. Mott’s nieces, Sharon Johnson, said her aunt and uncle also paid for college for a number of neighborhood children whose families were unable to afford higher education. The couple never had children, but they considered the children of the neighborhood to be their own, Johnson said.
“Sometimes I wish people could learn more about how to help themselves,” Mrs. Mott said in 1983 when she was given the county’s Human Rights Award. “I grew up on a farm down in Virginia. There wasn’t much money, but my grandparents knew how to survive.”
Marguerite Higginbotham was born April 22, 1921, in Amherst County, Va. She moved to the Washington area and married James Mott in 1947. He was a lawyer for the Department of the Navy, and she was an administrator for the federal government for 35 years, working at the Veterans Administration and the departments of the Interior, Army and Navy, from which she retired in 1976.
The couple faced racism as soon as they moved into the house they built in the Lewis Park area of the county in 1963. They had moved from a comfortable Arlington house to an impoverished area without sewers, running water, indoor bathrooms or local services.
When they were turned away one summer afternoon in 1965 from Lake Fairfax Park because they were African American, they organized other black residents in southwestern Fairfax, then sued the county and won equal access to county facilities for blacks.
While the suit was underway, however, the two civil servants endured anonymous phone calls in which the callers spoke of firebombing the wooden-frame house that Mr. Mott had built. He died in 2003.
After they won the lawsuit, the Motts did not retire quietly to a private life. They spoke up at meetings of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, pushing for seven years until the county extended sewer lines to the Lincoln-Lewis-Vannoy area.
While her husband did much of the public speaking, Mrs. Mott served on the Fairfax County Human Rights commission in 1978 and on the community center’s board of directors, and she led the senior women’s group, doing everything from organizing sponsored trips to providing for the sick. A member of Antioch Baptist Church in Fairfax Station, she served in the ministry that worked with senior citizens.
She said in 1983 that she didn’t really know what she was getting into when she and her husband moved to Lewis Park.
“When we first came, I guess we were really green. We found it hard to believe the conditions here,” she said. “We would hear comments from outside that this was a trashy area just because it doesn’t have certain facilities. . . . We can take a little and do a lot with it, make something nice of it.”