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McCarty washed and ironed and lived frugally. She has never had a car and still walks everywhere she goes. She shows a

visitor the shopping cart she pushes to Big Star, more than a mile away, to get groceries. For the visitor's benefit, she turns

on the window air conditioner bank personnel only recently persuaded her to get.



Oseola McCarty

A Symbol of Selfless Giving


During July 1995,  an African-American cleaning woman from Mississippi Oseola McCarty (1908-1999), who from working all her life accumulated great savings, donated to the  University of Southern Mississippi $150,000 for a student scholarship program.  "I want to help somebody's child go to college," Miss McCarty said.

Bill Pace, executive director of the USM Foundation, which will administer McCarty's gift, said, "This is by far the largest gift ever given to USM by an African American. We are overwhelmed and humbled by what she has done." 

An Extraordinary Woman of Sacrifice and Frugality

Oseola McCarty's lined, brown hands, now gnarled with arthritis, bear mute testimony to a lifetime spent washing and ironing other people's clothes.

There was nothing in particular she wanted to buy and no place in particular she wanted to go. An only child who had outlived her relatives, she lived a solitary existence, surrounded by rows of clothes she made pretty for people who knew her only as the washerwoman.

"I'm giving it away so that the children won't have to work so hard, like I did," she said in July 1995.

Born in Wayne County, Miss., on March 7, 1908, she was raised  by her mother, Lucy, who moved to Hattiesburg when Oseola was very young. Her mother, she recalls, worked hard to support her young daughter.

"She cooked for Mr. J.S. Garraway, who was Forrest County Circuit Clerk, and ... she would go to the schoolhouse and sell candy to make money. She would leave me alone. I was scared, but she didn't have no choice. I said then that when I could, I would save money so I could take care of my grandmother."

Young Oseola went to school at Eureka Elementary School. Even as a young child, she worked, though, and her savings habit started early.

"I would go to school and come home and iron. I'd put money away and save it. When I got enough, I went to First Mississippi National Bank and put it in. The teller told me it would be best to put it in a savings account. I didn't know. I just kept on saving."

When Oseola was in the sixth grade, her childless aunt had to go to the hospital, and, McCarty said, "I had to go and wait on her. When she came out of the hospital, she couldn't walk, and she needed me."

McCarty never returned to school. "All my classmates had gone off and left me," she said, "so I didn't go back. I just washed and ironed."

McCarty washed and ironed and lived frugally. She has never had a car and still walks everywhere she goes. She shows a visitor the shopping cart she pushes to Big Star, more than a mile away, to get groceries. For the visitor's benefit, she turns on the window air conditioner bank personnel only recently persuaded her to get.

Her grandmother died in 1944, her mother died in 1964, her aunt died in 1967, leaving her alone. Her mother and aunt each left her some money, which she added to her savings. In 1947, her uncle left her the modest, wood-frame house in which she still lives.

McCarty, who never married, said, "After my aunt died, I began to think, I didn't have nobody. I began to think about what to do with what little I had. I wanted to leave some to some cousins and my church. But I had been thinking for a long time ... since I was in school ... I didn't know how to fix it, but I wanted to give it to the college (USM). They used to not let colored people go out there, but now they do, and I think they should have it."

Miss McCarty's gift has astounded even those who believe they know her well. The customers who have brought their washing and ironing to her modest frame home for more than 75 years read like the social register of Hattiesburg. She has done laundry for three generations of some families. In the beginning, she said, she charged $1.50 to $2 a bundle, but, with inflation, the price rose.

"I just want it to go to someone who will appreciate it and learn. I'm old and I'm not going to live always." McCarty's gift establishes an endowed Oseola McCarty Scholarship, with "priority consideration given to those deserving African-American students enrolling at the University of Southern Mississippi who clearly demonstrate a financial need."

How It Really Happened

"When I started making $10 a bundle -- I don't remember when ... sometime after the war -- I commenced to save money," she recalled. "I put it in savings. I never would take any of it out. I just put it in. It just accumulated."

Over the years, she put money into several local banks. While banks merged and changed names and management, McCarty's savings grew. Her grandmother died in 1944, her mother died in 1964, her aunt died in 1967, "and I've been havin' it by myself since then," she said. Her mother and her aunt each left her some money, which she added to her savings. 

In 1947 her uncle gave her the house in which she still lives. Bank personnel, realizing that McCarty was accumulating sizeable savings, advised her to put her money into CD's, conservative mutual funds and other accounts where it would work for her.

Nancy Odom and Ellen Vinzant of Trustmark Bank have worked with McCarty for several years, not only helping her manage her money but helping look after her personally. It was they who helped her get the air conditioner. They also were concerned about what the future held for her.

"We both talked with her about her funds and what would happen to her if something happened," said Odom. "She knew she needed someone to take care of her."

Odom and Vinzant referred Miss McCarty to Paul Laughlin, Trustmark's assistant vice president and trust officer. "In one of our earliest meetings, I talked about what we could do for her," Laughlin said. "We talked about providing for her if she's not able. Then we turned naturally to what happens to her estate after she dies.

"She said she wanted to leave the bulk of her money to USM, and she didn't want (anybody) to come in and change her mind. I called Jimmy Frank McKenzie, her attorney -- she's done laundry for him for years -- and he talked to her. He made sure it was her idea.

Then I met with her to let her decide how to divide her money up." McCarty said, "Mr. Paul laid out dimes on the table to explain how to divide it up."

Paul Laughlin said, "I got 10 dimes (to represent percentages). I wrote on pieces of paper the parties she wanted to leave her money to and put them on the table. Then I asked how she wanted her money to be split up. She put one dime on her church and one each for several relatives. Then she said she wanted the rest -- six dimes -- to go to the college. She was quite definite about wanting to give 60 percent to USM. To my knowledge, she has never been out there, but she seems to have the best of the students in mind. The decision was entirely hers."

"I just want the scholarship to go to some child who needs it, to whoever is not able to help their children," Miss McCarty said. "I'm too old to get an education, but they can."

McCarty signed an irrevocable trust agreement stating her wishes for her estate and giving the bank the responsibility for managing her funds.

"Mr. Paul [Laughlin ] gives me a check, and I can go get money anytime I need it. My lawyer gave them permission to take care of me if something happens to me."

Paul Laughlin said the bank normally keeps such transactions in strictest confidence, but because of the uniqueness of McCarty's story, he asked for her permission to make it public.

"Well, I guess that would be all right," she said with her typical calm acceptance."She seems wonderfully at peace with where she is and who she is," Paul Laughlin said.

 McCarty's arthritis in her hands forced her to retire from washing and ironing in December 1994, at the age of 86. Now she spends her days cleaning house, and she still walks everywhere she goes. But she said, "If I ever get able to, I want to go back to work."

The Excitement Expands

Oceola McCarty did not want any monuments, any proclamations, said people that knew her. But the selflessness of  87-year-old woman's $150,000 gift to the University of Southern Mississippi from her life's savings sparked  national as well as worldwide attention. 

The woman who had gone out only for some preaching at the Friendship Baptist Church in Hattiesburg and to buy groceries would be honored by the United Nations, would receive more than 300 awards. People all over the world knew who she was and what she did.

On a trip to Washington, McCarty was honored by President Bill Clinton and the Congressional Black Caucus. Miss McCarty, who declined an invitation to go by plane, was accompanied by Mary McCarty, a 50-year-old cousin from Shubuta and a high school social studies teacher in Waynesboro.

"I'm just tickled to death," McCarty said while waiting at the Hattiesburg train station, noting it was her first trip out of the South since a visit to Niagara Falls more than 50 years ago. McCarty will sat  with President Clinton at a 7 p.m. Saturday dinner of the Congressional Black Caucus at the Washington Convention Center. New Jersey lawyer and businessman Lewis Katz helped organize the trip. 

The following Monday, Miss McCarty received a presidential citation from Clinton at the White House.

Although McCarty has resided less than three miles away from the Hattiesburg university for most of her life, she visited the campus for the first time Aug. 29. She received a 30-second standing ovation from about 1,000 faculty and staff when she was introduced by USM President Aubrey K. Lucas. Lucas also presented McCarty with a framed letter from President Clinton, lauding her generosity.

"Hillary and I were moved by your gift to the University of Southern Mississippi. Your unselfish deed is a remarkable example of the spirit and ingenuity that made America great," the letter read in part. 

Earlier in the day, she had met in Jackson, Miss., with Pat Fordice, the wife of Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice. Two days later, McCarty was introduced to more than 30,000 cheering fans at the university's season-opening football game. On Sept. 10, the Hattiesburg community celebrated "Oseola McCarty Day."

The gift and dizzying media blitz that followed created a domino effect on the hearts and pocketbooks of people nationwide, and a group of local business people launched a private fund-raising campaign to match the donation. Contributions began pouring in from scattered locations across the nation to the USM Foundation. 

Contributions from more than 600 donors added some $330,000 to the original scholarship fund of $150,000. After hearing of Miss McCarty's gift, Ted Turner, a multibillionaire, gave away a billion dollars.

Along with all the plaques and trophies or other honors -- she received the Presidential Citizen's Medal, the nation's second highest civilian award, and an honorary doctorate from Harvard University -- she was awarded other things that were pure fun.

In 1996, she carried the Olympic torch through part of Mississippi. Later that year, hers was the hand on the switch that dropped the ball in Times Square in New York's wild New Year's Eve celebration. In fact, she said at the time, it was the first time she had actually stayed up past midnight.

Stephanie Bullock, an 18-year-old Hattiesburg High School honor graduate, was designated as the first scholarship recipient, getting $1,000 to help launch her college studies at USM this fall. When she met McCarty for the first time, she threw her arms around the woman's neck and whispered, "Thank you so much." The endowed Oseola McCarty Scholarship, with "priority consideration given to those deserving African-American students enrolling at the University of Southern Mississippi who clearly demonstrate a financial need."

Miss McCarty took others' excitement over her gift with the same quiet grace that she had taken all the bad and good that have come into her life.

"I can't do everything," she said, "but I can do something to help somebody. And what I can do I will do. I wish I could do more."

The woman who acted in anticipation of death found a life she could have never imagined. She flew on a plane for the first time in her life and laughed out loud when the food did not fall off the tray as the plane rumbled through the sky. She stayed in a hotel for the first time in her life, and before she checked out, she made the bed.

"People treated her like a monument," said Jewel Tucker, the secretary to the president of the university and Miss McCarty's traveling companion in those almost giddy years after the gift. "But she was really a movement. It will keep moving."

Time Draws Nigh

Miss McCarty was told that she had liver cancer, about a year after she underwent surgery for colon cancer. She wanted her last days to be spent in the little house where she spent most of her life. She was 91.

"I don't want to close my eyes because I don't know if I'll open them again," the tiny, frail woman told a visitor recently. "But I am not afraid."

Miss Oseola McCarty -- the humble washerwoman who became The University of Southern Mississippi's most famous benefactor -- passed away Sept. 26, 1999, after a bout with cancer. In a world in which people are suspicious of things too good to be true, Miss McCarty really was good and true.

"There's a lot of talk about self-esteem these days," she once said. "It seems pretty basic to me. If you want to feel proud of yourself, you've got to do things you can be proud of. Feelings follow actions."


There are those who would draw the wrong lessons from the life of Oceola McCarty. She was indeed an extraordinary and special person, one who was extremely frugal and made great personal sacrifices. Some would say wrongly: Poverty is about individual failure. It is about family dysfunction, character disorder and self-destructive behavior. Of course, this is a class attitude. Those who would take such a position are apologists for the structural wrongs that exist in our society. They are the sycophants and opportunists for the powerful and the mean in spirit.


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A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.WashingtonPost

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Ancient African Nations

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