McCarty, Oseola 1908–
Oseola McCarty 1908–
Learned From Humble Beginnings
Oseola McCarty, a quiet, thoughtful woman from Hattiesburg, Mississippi dropped out of school in the sixth grade to care for her sick aunt and grandmother. From that point on and for the next 78 years, she spent her life doing other people’s laundry using only a large pot and a scrub board and never revealing a secret. She never left the home she was raised in, never married and had children, and never learned to drive because she was content with what she had and where she was. In July of 1995 McCarty, then 87 years old, rose from obscurity and sparked national attention because her generosity touched the hearts of so many people.
What could this unassuming washerwoman give that would cause so many people to sit up and take notice to the degree that they have? Only her life savings. McCarty donated $150,000—most of the money she earned in her lifetime—to the University of Southern Mississippi to fund scholarships for black students. She did this, in part, as preparation for her death. She told Rick Bragg in his Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times article about McCarty, “It won’t be too many years before I pass on, and I just figured the money would do them more good than it would me.”
McCarty’s scholarship gift made history and headlines. The people in Hattiesburg refer to her generosity simply as the “Gift.” She told the New York Times that the money was more than she could ever use and that she wanted to share her wealth with the children so that they would not have to work as hard as she did.
McCarty always considered herself blessed to be gainfully employed while other blacks in rural Mississippi could not find work. She wanted to put the money to work where it would do the most good—securing the future of young black people of Southern Mississippi who might not otherwise get a chance to go to college. She said of her gift, “I live where I want to live, and I live the way I want to live. I couldn’t drive a car if I had one. I’m too old to go to college. So I planned to do this. I planned it myself,” according to the New York Times.
Learned From Humble Beginnings
Born in Wayne County, Mississippi near a small town
At a Glance…
Born Oseola McCarty, March 7, 1908 in Wayne County, MS; daughter of Lucy McCarty; Education; Eureka Elementary, Hattiesburg, MS, sixth grade. Religion: Baptist.
Career : Washed and ironed clothes, 1918-1994.
Selected honors and achievements: Donated $150,000 to the University of Sourthern Mississippi, 1995. Pres. Citizens Medal, 1995; Friends of the USM award, 1995; Comm. Heroes Awd., Natl. Urban League, 1995; Wallenberg Human. Award, Wallen. Found., 1995; Natl. Inst. of Soc. Sci., Gold Medal, 1995; UNESCO, Avicenna Medal, 1995. USM, Hon. Lifetime Mem., Inst. for Learn, in Retirement Awd., 1995; Liv. Legacy Award., Natl. Caucus and Ctr. on Black Aged, Inc., 1995; Harriett Tubman Awd., 1996; Premier Black Women of Courage Awd., 1996; Afr. Amer. Family Preserv. Awd., 1996; 1996 Olympics Torch Carrier; Humanized Educ. Awd. and Friend of Educ. Award., MS Assn. of Educ, 1996; USM Sch. of Nursing, 1996; Celebrated Citizen of Wayne Cty., 1996; 1996 Essence Award., Essence Mag,; Aetna Awd., Aetna Found., 1996; Woman of the Year, Black Expo, 1996; MS Democratic Party, 1996; AARP’s 1996 Andrus Award.; 1996 Empowerment Awd.; Hon. Doc, of Hum. Letters, Harvard, 1996; Newsmaker Award., Natl. Assn. of Black Jouru, 1996; Natl. Educ. Assoc. Bd. of Dirs. Hon., 1996; 1996 Human. Awd.; Oseola McCarty’s Simple Wisdom for Rich Living, 1996; Lifetime Achiev. Award, McMillan/Group, 1996; Fifth Ann. Trumpet Awd., Turner Broad., 1997; Black His. Month Heroes, 1997; Franciscan Found, honor, 1997; Natl. Council of Negro Women, Fannie Lou Hamer Awd., 1997; Jackson State University hon., 1997; USM, Phi Kappa Phi, hon., 1997; Internet Interview, Apr, 29, 1997; Human. Awd., MS Head Start, 1997; Commence. Speaker, Alcorn State University, 1997.
Addresses: Miller Street, Hattiesburg, MS; Contact; William E. Kirkpatrick, Univ. of Southern MS, Public Relations, Box 5016, Hattiesburg, MS, 39406-5016.
called Shubuta on March 7, 1908, Oseola McCarty was raised by her mother, Lucy, who moved to Hattiesburg when McCarty was very young. Lucy McCarty worked long and hard as a cook for others to support herself and her young daughter. McCarty took the lesson of hard work to heart at a very young age and started to work and save money. “I would go to school and come home and iron,” she told the University of Southern Mississippi News. “I’d put the money away and save it. When I got enough, I went to First Mississippi 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,” she continued.
When McCarty was in the sixth grade at Eureka Elementary School in Hattiesburg, her aunt with whom she, her mother, and her grandmother lived, became ill. She waited on her aunt in the hospital and then continued to care for her when she returned home because her aunt could not walk. By the time her aunt was well enough for McCarty to return to school McCarty recounted to the University of Southern Mississippi News, “All my classmates had gone off and left me, so I didn’t go back. I just washed and ironed.”
Her grandmother died in 1944, her mother died in 1964, and her aunt in 1967. McCarty has been alone ever since. The house that she lives in today and shared with her mother, grandmother and aunt was given to her by her uncle in 1947. The small sums of money left to her by her mother and her aunt after their deaths were added to her savings account.
Over the years as her savings began to accumulate, McCarty was advised by bank personnel to put her money into Certificates of Deposit (CD’s), conservative mutual funds and other accounts where it would work for her. As she continued to work and live frugally, her money continued to compound. She never bought anything she did not need. She had a black and white television on which she could only get one channel, but she does not care because she never watched it anyway. She bought an air conditioner only recently so that her visitors could be comfortable when they came to visit. She never used it just for herself because it ran up the cost of her electric bill.
Prepared to Leave a Legacy
After her aunt died, McCarty began thinking about what she might do with the small estate that she had when she was gone. She knew that she wanted to leave something to her cousins and her church. She thought about leaving the largest portion of her savings to the University of Southern Mississippi but she did not know how to go about it. In one of her earliest meetings with Trustmark Bank officers to discuss her estate and her own care should she become incapacitated, McCarty told them that she wanted to leave the bulk of her money to USM. In an effort to ensure that this is what she wanted to do, Paul Laughlin, Trustmark’s assistant vice president, first consulted with McCarty’s attorney, Jimmy Frank McKenzie. He then helped her determine how she wanted the funds distributed.
Laughlin found a simple way to explain to McCarty how she could decide what amount of money she wanted to go where and to whom. He laid out ten dimes to represent percentages. On slips of paper, he wrote out the parties to whom she wanted to leave her money. He explained to her that she could decide how much money each party got by placing the dimes where she wanted them. She placed three dimes next to her cousins, one for her church and six dimes next to the University. McCarty’s gift is in the form of an irrevocable trust agreement: the money, handled by her bank, will give her an income for life but her gift will not go to the University of Southern Mississippi until after her death. Of this agreement McCarty said, “Mr. Paul gives me a check, and I can get money anytime I need it,” McCarty told the University of Southern Mississippi News “My lawyer gave them permission to take care of me if something happens to me,” she added.
McCarty was asked by some why she chose to give her money to the University of Southern Mississippi who did not even accept black students until the early 1960s as opposed to a predominantly black college. Her reply exemplified her life. She said, “Because it’s here; it’s close.” This simple statement challenged many. Not only did it challenge their generosity but it also made people take a look at the environment that surrounds them every day and assess what they can invest of themselves and their resources to make their world a little better as McCarty had done. McCarty’s unselfish gift so stirred the business community of Hattiesburg that they pledged to match her donation and raise the Oseola McCarty Scholarship Fund to $300,000. The story of this washerwoman with a sixth grade education who donated most of her life savings for scholarships touched people around the world. Many, inspired by her generosity and example, have donated to the scholarship fund.
“I’ve been in the business 24 years now, in private fund raising,” Bill Pace, executive director of the University’s Foundation said in the New York Times. “And this is the first time I’ve experienced anything like this from an individual who simply was not affluent, did not have the resources and yet gave substantially. In fact, she gave almost everything she had,” he continued. What does McCarty ask in return for her generosity? Only one thing, that she be allowed to attend the graduation ceremony of a student who made it through college because of her gift. Her only real regret was that she never completed her education.
Elevated to Celebrity Status
When Oseola McCarty gave the University of Southern Mississippi $150,000 on July 26, 1995, she never thought that she was doing anything remarkable, but it made her a celebrity. She did not set out to get any attention because of it. This quiet, graceful woman just wanted to help young black people get the education she never got. However, she has been the cover story of many major newspapers including the New York Times. She has been on every major television network, and has traveled across the country. She has even written a book, “Oseola McCarty’s Simple Wisdom for Rich Living.” It is a collection of her views on work, faith, savings, relationships, and good living in her own words.
Since signing the irrevocable trust agreement, McCarty has been honored by many. In September of 1995 in her first trip out of the South since her visit to Niagara Falls 50 years earlier, McCarty boarded a train for Washington, DC, where she was honored by President Clinton and the Congressional Black Caucus at a dinner at the White House. She was bestowed with the Presidential Citizens Medal. McCarty, who wanted to be a nurse before having to drop out of school in the sixth grade, received a nurse’s cap and an honorary diploma in nursing from Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis, and an honorary doctorate from Harvard. Still, according to Sharon Wertz of the University of Southern Mississippi News, “The woman at the center of this frenzy has not changed. Oseola McCarty still looks at life with clear and quiet grace, trusting God to help her deal with whatever comes her way.”
After all of her years of isolation, McCarty traveled extensively during the first year following her donation to the University. She traveled to New York City five times, Washington, DC three times, and to Denver, Philadelphia, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Atlanta, Memphis, and many other cities. McCarty says she has enjoyed the traveling and all of the wonderful people she has met. She particularly liked the changes in herself. “I used to wouldn’t talk,” she told University of Southern Mississippi News in her soft southern drawl. “I hardly ever said anything. I lived by myself and didn’t have anybody to talk to. But I really enjoy talking now, and I’m more braver than I was,” she continued.
McCarty’s generosity has inspired many. A New Jersey artist, Russell A. Murray, sent her a large framed picture entitled, “Miss Oseola’s Gift” which she proudly displays along with a smaller one. His note quoted in the University of Southern Mississippi News simply said, “Please accept these works of art that I have exhibited in New Jersey where I live. Your act of faith and giving was an inspiration to me.” Of her many gifts McCarty told Wertz of the University of Southern Mississippi News, “I love ‘em all, but I don’t have room for them. I gave them to the school. When I’m gone from this world never to come back, they’ll have them to show the students.”
McCarty is handling the constant media attention, traveling and public appearance with new found energy. Some worried that it would be too much for her. In answer to their concerns McCarty replied in the University of Southern Mississippi News, “I’m not tired of it, as long as I’m able. It gives me something to think about now that I’m retired.”
Gift Became Reality
McCarty is most proud of the scholarships, not the media attention and honors she received. “I didn’t know how to do it,” she told Sharon Wertz of University of Southern Mississippi News, “but I wanted to fix up a scholarship at USM so young people could get their education. You can’t do nothing nowadays without an education. I don’t regret one penny I gave. I just wish I had more to give,” she added.
Stephanie Bullock was at home when the call came advising her that she was the first recipient of the Oseola McCarty Scholarship at the University of Southern Mississippi. She has since adopted McCarty as her honorary grandmother. Carletta Barnes of Hattiesburg became the second Oseola McCarty Scholarship recipient. The USM Foundation funded the initial scholarship in the fall of 1995 to Bullock so that McCarty could see the fruits of her labor. The Foundation subsequently launched a drive to match McCarty’s original $150,000 gift. To date, donors worldwide have contributed more than $200,000 to the scholarship fund honoring McCarty.
In 1996, Barnes was awarded the first $1,000 scholarship from the interest earned from the scholarship fund. Now the interest is sufficient to provide full scholarships of $2,400 for four recipients. According to the Foundation, priority consideration for the scholarship is given to African American students enrolling or enrolled at USM who clearly demonstrate a financial need.
McCarty’s dream is to live to see Bullock and Barnes graduate from the University of Southern Mississippi. In an interview with the University of Southern Mississippi News, McCarty humbly said, “I can’t do everything, but I can do something to help somebody. And what I can do I will do. I wish I could do more.” Profound words buoyed by profound actions. This quiet, unassuming washerwoman has taught the world a lesson in giving.
Ebony, December 1995, p. 84.
New York Times, August 10, 1995; September 23, 1995.
University of Southern Mississippi, News Release, August 3, 1995; August 14, 1995; September 21, 1995.
University of Southern Mississippi News, July 1996.
Oseola McCarty’s Simple Wisdon for Rich Living, Longstreet Press, Marietta, Georgia.
—Paula M. Morin
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