CAMDEN, NJ — Those close to her knew Jerrothia Riggs as a community leader, mentor, advocate, policymaker.
They also knew her simply as Mom Riggs, someone who made it their mission to uplift others.
“You don’t have to do all of those things, because she lived an expansive life, but you can do one to make your community better,” said Chris Hampton, founder of Camden-based CHAMP I AM Organization.
In the lot of a Parkside center named after the city champion, a rededication ceremony Wednesday played out like a storytelling session, with friends and former mentees, some now city officials, sharing personal anecdotes of Riggs’ storied career.
Made all the more special, a group of 25 of her extended family members was on hand to celebrate the newly-named Jerrothia Riggs Renaissance Center.
First designated the Jerrothia Riggs Adult Learning Education Center, the change reflects the late educator’s endless passion for city children, as well as the current uses of the center. One is Dare Academy, which runs a 10-month program on dance history and techniques for students ages 3 to 18.
Through the efforts of Riggs’ family, the 1656 Kaighn Ave. landmark will continue to honor its foundation, set by the woman dubbed Camden’s Rosa Parks.
Riggs, who died in March 2000 at age 78, certainly was a pioneer in her own right.
She became the first black, female president of the Camden City School District. Novella Hinson remembered that everyone on the board of education “deferred to Mom Riggs.”
“Even when Mom Riggs wasn’t president, she was president,” Hinson said.
Riggs helped to establish full-day preschool and kindergarten in the community. She also championed instructional assistance in the late 1960s.
She was always looking to share information with the community and empower residents, according to Roy Dawson, a former schools superintendent and colleague of more than 30 years.
“That was probably better training than I ever would have gotten from Rutgers University or any other university,” Dawson said of working with her.
And, as Mayor Frank Moran noted, Riggs in 1945 even led efforts to help desegregate Camden elementary schools.
Earlier in his career serving on the city council, Moran would cross paths with Riggs, who didn’t mind sharing her opinion at meetings.
“She was loud and vocal, and she would let you know what she thought with no hesitation,” Moran said, “but she not only spoke it, she stood for it and she followed it through.”
Family friend Kathryn E. Gaines viewed Riggs as a warrior.
“I thank her family for sharing her, because not only was she known here in Camden, she was renowned,” Gaines said.
To Herb Riggs, the sixth child of Jerrothia, it wasn’t anything flashy she did; she was just the person who gave him confidence.
Herb said that his mother taught him how to be a leader. He hopes the youth of Camden can learn Jerrothia Riggs' history and apply her example to the city today.
"I can never do as much as what she's done, but I will keep on striving," said Herb Riggs, now a resident of Boston. "She told me that if you're not uplifting your people, you're not doing your job."
That's the legacy Troy Riggs said he will carry on as a grandchild of Jerrothia Riggs. He wants to make sure to "live for the last name."
He rattled off achievements of the Riggs lineage — a program director for Camden nonprofits; the first black, female manager of Bell Telephone Company; a national principal of the year; a 20-year Camden school board member; the first black, female judge of San Diego.
When Troy Riggs came to the stage earlier that morning as Moran presented a proclamation, the Camden small business owner got a bit more motivation.
"He was saying we have big shoes to fill," Riggs said, "so I just want to say, Frank Moran: we have and we will fill those shoes."