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Miss Osceola McCarty was what folks around Hattiesburg, MS called a “wash woman.” She spent most of her 91 years scrubbing shirts and socks and other people’s dirty drawers. But she was also a hero to poor students at Southern Mississippi University, and I’d like to tell you why.
Times were hard for the young black girl, so she quit school before finishing the sixth grade in order to go to work. She never married, and never learned to drive because she said there was no place that she particularly wanted to go. Instead, she toiled away, washing and ironing clothes for parties to which she was never invited and weddings she would never attend.
I was born on a farm in Wayne County, Mississippi, 88 years ago. I lived there with my mama, grandmother, and aunt. We raised corn, peas, potatoes, watermelons and cane. And we used to wash our clothes outside in a big black cast-iron pot.
When the four of us moved to Hattiesburg in 1916, we brought that pot with us. In it my grandmother and mother did washing for white folks. Like a treasure pot, it helped us make a living.
Into her late eighties, Miss Osceola pushed a shopping cart nearly a mile to get her groceries, and hitched rides with friends in order to worship on Sundays at the Friendship Baptist Church. And she never upgraded from an old black and white TV that only picked up one channel. “Never watch it anyhow,” she said.
Osceola hardly ever bought anything. The old family home, small and humble, was paid for. When her shoes got too small, she just cut holes for her toes. And she bound her well-worn Bible with Scotch tape to keep the Psalms from falling out.
She did manage to take a vacation to Niagara Falls once, but it scared her to death. “I heard all that water,” she said, “And it seemed like the world was coming to an end.” So she mostly stayed home after that. Living alone from 1967 until her death in 1999.
Over the years, she socked away her earnings, mostly handfuls of change and crumpled dollar bills. And by the time she was in her mid-eighties she was sitting on a pile of over $150,000.
“That’s more money than I could ever use,” she said. “I’ve worked so hard, and I’d like to see to it that some of these poor children never have to work quite as hard as I did.” So she decided to give it all away.
Osceola decided to start a scholarship for underprivileged students at the University of Southern Mississippi. In short order, several others joined her with matching donations, establishing an endowment in perpetuity.
She wanted no buildings named after her, no statues erected in her honor. “I’d would like to watch one of them babies graduate, though,” she said. Before she died of cancer in 1999, she got to watch Stephanie Bullock, the first of her “babies,” receive a diploma.
In 1998, the University awarded her with an honorary degree, the first in their history. Harvard awarded her an honorary doctorate, and later, President Clinton honored Miss McCarty with the Presidential Citizens Medal.
In December of that year, her hand was on the lever when the ball dropped on New Year’s Day in Times Square. That was the first time she had ever ridden on an airplane or slept in a hotel.
But her greatest honor has been the kids who have been able to get a college education because of her generosity. 130 students so far.
She said, “Sometimes people ask me, ‘Miss McCarty, why didn’t you spend that money on yourself?’ I just smile. Thanks to the good Lord, I am spending it on myself.”
When asked if she regretted anything about her life, she said, “I only wish that I had more to give.”
In 2020, she got a statue anyway.
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