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
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
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
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."
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
"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.
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
"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
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.
* * *
* * * * *
Salvage the Bones
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
* * * * *
Incognegro: A Memoir of
Exile and Apartheid
By Frank B. Wilderson, III
Wilderson, a professor,
writer and filmmaker from
presents a gripping account
of his role in the downfall
of South African apartheid
as one of only two black
Americans in the African
National Congress (ANC).
After marrying a South
African law student, Wilderson reluctantly
returns with her to South
Africa in the early 1990s,
where he teaches
Johannesburg and Soweto
students, and soon joins the
military wing of the ANC.
portrait of Nelson Mandela
as a petulant elder eager to
accommodate his white
countrymen will jolt readers
who've accepted the
usually accorded him. After
the assassination of
Mandela's rival, South
African Communist Party
leader Chris Hani, Mandela's
regime deems Wilderson's
public questions a threat to
national security; soon,
having lost his stomach for
the cause, he returns to
Wilderson has a
distinct, powerful voice and
a strong story that shuffles
between the indignities of
Johannesburg life and his
early years in Minneapolis,
the precocious child of
academics who barely
tolerate his emerging
about love within and across
the color line and cultural
divides are as provocative
as his politics; despite
digressions, this is a
riveting memoir of
apartheid's last days.—Publishers
* * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
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Ancient African Nations
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update 31 March 2012