Table Talk


What Could a Washwoman Do?

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Oseola McCarty (1908-1999)

I wrote a story a few years ago for Generous Giving Initiative about a little lady name Oseola McCarty. Below is a considerably condensed version of what I think is one of best giving stories ever.

Oseola McCarty was born in 1908 to a poor African-American family in rural Mississippi. With only a few years of education, she spent her entire life washing clothes for a living with her mother, grandmother, and aunt. Because she never married, her life revolved around her immediate family and her church, Friendship Baptist Church. She never ventured more than a few miles from the little house she lived in for eighty-seven years. However…

In the last four years of her life, she received an honorary doctorate from Harvard University, the Wallenberg Humanitarian Award, and the Presidential Citizen’s Medal, the nation’s second highest civilian award. She was honored on a Barbara Walters special as being one of the “Ten Most Fascinating People of 1995.” In a survey conducted by the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, Oseola was voted “Humanitarian of the Century.” Even the United Nations sent a representative to her little house in Hattiesburg to award her the Avicenna Medal. In addition to these and over 300 other awards, Miss Oseola McCarty was responsible for inspiring what was, at that time, the largest philanthropic commitment ever made by an individual.

How could a washwoman have done all that?

When Oseola was six she went to live in Hattiesburg with her aunt Evelyn and her grandmother, Julia. Julia lived in a rented six-room house and worked six days a week, twelve to sixteen hours a day, hand washing and ironing clothes for white families. Aunt Evelyn cooked for some of those same families during the day and helped with the washing at night.

Even with a meager income, Oseola’s grandmother saved whatever she could, stuffing bills and coins under her mattress. At age eleven, Oseola created her own hiding place inside an old hand-me-down doll carriage and began saving her money to buy candy. Though she attended school for a few years, she dropped out for several months to help care for her ailing aunt. After realizing how far she had fallen behind the other students, Oseola never went back. Instead, the twelve-year old went to work helping her grandmother.

One day, Oseola went to town to pay some bills and, while there, visited the First Mississippi National Bank. Arriving back home, she proudly showed her grandmother the register for her passbook savings account. No one in her family had ever had a bank account before.

When her grandmother became ill, Oseola went to the hospital to help care for her — just as she had done with her aunt Evelyn. That’s where Oseola discovered what she really wanted to be. The nurses caring for people all wore white uniforms, and looked to her like angels. From that day on, Oseola wanted to be a nurse. It would be nice to say that her dream came true. But it didn’t, at least not in the way Oseola had imagined.

Julia died in 1944, followed by Oseola’s mother in 1964 and Aunt Evelyn three years later. Oseola worked with her family for fifty-five years — through World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, and the Civil Rights Movement. For another twenty-seven years, she continued washing, ironing, and putting whatever was left over into her passbook savings account — that is, after she paid her tithe to the Friendship Baptist Church.

She never owned a car; didn’t feel the need for one. She walked to church and pushed a shopping cart to the Big Star grocery more that a mile away. She was happy and lived her life without regrets — that is, with one exception. Oseola had always wanted to be a nurse but never had the chance.

Oseola finally retired at eighty-six with enough money to buy anything she wanted. However, she didn’t want to buy anything in particular and didn’t really want to go anywhere. She still lived in the little six-room rental, which at the insistence of bank employees, had been air-conditioned. But she only ran it for visitors. She had a black and white television that picked up one channel, but she rarely turned it on. She still walked to church, still pushed her shopping cart to the store, and still spent time reading her Bible.

In her late eighties Miss McCarty began to make plans with regard to her estate. In her words,

“After my aunt died, I began to think about what to do with what little I had. Didn’t know how to fix it, but I wanted to give to the college. They used to not let colored people go out there, but now they do, and I think they should have it. I just want the scholarships to go to some child who needs it. I’m too old to get an education, but they can.”

When asked were the money came from, she said,

“I don’t remember exactly when… sometime after the war (i.e., World War I), I commenced to saving money. I put it in, and I’d never take any of it out. It just accumulated.”

With her permission, “The Gift” as it came to be known, was made public. Miss Oseola McCarty had, in the form of an irrevocable trust, given $150,000 to provide scholarships for students in need of financial assistance. Though Miss McCarty had never actually been out to the campus of the University of Southern Missippi, it was at that time the largest gift ever made to the school by an African-American.

People around Hattiesburg were astounded. What was even more surprising, especially to Miss McCarty, was what her gift did over the next four years.

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Oseola McCarty (1908-1999)

Rick Bragg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent for the New York Times, described Miss McCarty’s Bible as being “held together with Scotch tape to keep Corinthians from falling out.” After the story was published, Oseola began receiving Bibles from all over the country. In the following years, she met hundreds of celebrities but was never nervous or impressed, mostly because she had on idea who they were. She stayed in a hotel for the first time and, before checking out, made sure the bed was neatly made. She was just as proud to receive the key to the city of Columbia, Mississippi, as she was of the honorary doctorate from Harvard or the Olympic Torch she carried in 1996. But to Oseola, the greatest honor came from Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis — a nurse’s cap and honorary degree in nursing.

After the announcement, the University of Southern Mississippi Foundation led a fundraising drive to match Miss McCarty’s gift. Contributions from more than 600 donors not only matched, but more than doubled it. Miss McCarty had been an inspiration to people everywhere. When Ted Turner announced his commitment to give away a billion dollars, he referred to Oseola McCarty as his inspiration.

“If that little woman can give away everything she has,” said Turner, “then I can give a billion.”

When Oseola McCarty died at the age of ninety-one, her body was laid in the rotunda of the USM’s Lucas Administration Building for public visitations. Among the thousands coming to pay their final respects, were four generations of families whose clothes had been washed and ironed by Miss McCarty. A client list of Oseola, her mother, aunt, and grandmother read like the social register of Hattiesburg. A “Celebration of the Life of Oseola McCarty” was held that afternoon at USM’s Bennett Auditorium. Among those in attendance were USM nursing students who were being helped by “The Gift.”

What made all the honors and awards seem so appropriate was that it never occurred to Miss McCarty that she had done anything remarkable.

“I can’t do everything,” she once said, “but I can do something to help somebody. And what I can do, I will do. I wish I could do more.”


Walt Walker is freelance writer and the editor for Every Nation News online.

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