As a child, Oseola McCarty would come home from elementary school and iron clothes, stashing the money she earned in her doll buggy. McCarty was raised in Hattiesburg by her grandmother and aunt, who cleaned houses, cooked, and took in laundry. When her aunt returned from a hospitalization unable to walk, Oseola dropped out of sixth grade to care for her, and take up her work as a washerwoman. She never returned to school.
Asked to describe her typical day, McCarty answered: “I would go outside and start a fire under my wash pot. Then I would soak, wash, and boil a bundle of clothes. Then I would rub ’em, wrench ’em, rub ’em again, starch ’em, and hang ’em on the line. After I had all of the clean clothes on the line, I would start on the next batch. I’d wash all day, and in the evenin’ I’d iron until 11:00. I loved the work. The bright fire. Wrenching the wet, clean cloth. White shirts shinin’ on the line.”
And hers was not a standard-issue job. McCarty scrubbed her laundry by hand on a rub-board. She did try an automatic washer and dryer in the 1960s, but found that “the washing machine didn’t rinse enough, and the dryer turned the whites yellow.” After years of boiling clothes and then doing four fresh-water rinses, that wasn’t good enough to meet her high standards. The machine was almost immediately retired, and she went back to her Maid Rite scrub board, water drawn from a nearby fire hydrant, and 100 feet of open-air clothesline.
“I knew there were people who didn’t have to work as hard as I did, but it didn’t make me feel sad,” McCarty explained. “I loved to work, and when you love to do anything, those things don’t bother you. . . . Sometimes I worked straight through two or three days. I had goals I was working toward. That motivated me and I was able to push hard. . . . Work is a blessing. As long as I am living I want to be working at something. Just because I am old doesn’t mean I can’t work.”
This extraordinary work ethic, pursued straight through to her retirement at age 86, apparently produced results her customers appreciated. In 1996, Hattiesburg businessman Paul Laughlin wrote, “I know one person who still has several shirts that were last cleaned almost two years ago by Miss McCarty. He says that he does not intend to wear them; he just takes them out periodically to look at them and to enjoy the crisp fabric and its scent.” McCarty, concludes Laughlin, was a walking object lesson “that all work can be performed with dignity and infused with quality.”
“Hard work gives your life meaning,” stated McCarty. “Everyone needs to work hard at somethin’ to feel good about themselves. Every job can be done well and every day has its satisfactions. . . . If you want to feel proud of yourself, you’ve got to do things you can be proud of.”
Shortly after she retired, McCarty did something that made many Americans very proud of her. She had begun to save almost as soon as she started working at age eight. As the money pooled up in her doll buggy, the very young girl took action. “I went to the bank and deposited. Didn’t know how to do it. Went there myself. Didn’t tell mama and them I was goin’.”
“I commenced to save money. I never would take any of it out. I just put it in. . . . It’s not the ones that make the big money, but the ones who know how to save who get ahead. You got to leave it alone long enough for it to increase.”
Of course that requires self-control and modest appetites. “My secret was contentment. I was happy with what I had,” said McCarty.
These sturdy habits ran together to produce McCarty’s final secret. When she retired in 1995, her hands painfully swollen with arthritis, this washerwoman who had been paid in little piles of coins and dollar bills her entire life had $280,000 in the bank.
Even more startling: she decided to give most of it away—not as a bequest, but immediately.
Setting aside just enough to live on, McCarty donated $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi to fund scholarships for worthy but needy students seeking the education she never had. When they found out what she had done, over 600 men and women in Hattiesburg and beyond made donations that more than tripled her original endowment. Today, the university presents several full-tuition McCarty scholarships every year.
Like a lot of philanthropists, McCarty wanted the satisfactions of giving while living. And she succeeded. The first beneficiary of her gift, a Hattiesburg girl named Stephanie Bullock, was president of her senior class and had supportive parents, but also a twin brother, and not enough family income to send them both to college. With her McCarty Scholarship, Bullock enrolled at Southern Miss, and promptly adopted McCarty as a surrogate grandmother.
Also like a lot of philanthropists, McCarty felt a powerful impulsion to act in her home region. When asked why she picked Southern Miss, she replied “because it’s here.” The campus (though she had never visited) was located just a couple blocks from her home. And Oseola McCarty was forgiving. Reminded that the university she was giving her money to had been white-only until the 1960s, she answered with equanimity: “They used to not let colored people go out there. But now they do. And I think they should have it.”
In addition to the dignity of work, McCarty’s satisfactions were the timeless ones: faith in God, family closeness, and love of locale. One friend described McCarty’s faith as “as simple as the Sermon on the Mount, and as difficult to practice.” She was baptized at age 13, dunked in a local pond while dressed all in white (a mixed blessing for someone who washed her clothes by hand).
“I start each day on my knees, saying the Lord’s Prayer. Then I get busy about my work,” McCarty told one interviewer. “You have to accept God the best way you know how and then He’ll show Himself to you. And the more you serve Him, the more able you are to serve Him.”
“Some people make a lot of noise about what’s wrong with the world, and they are usually blamin’ somebody else. I think people who don’t like the way things are need to look at themselves first. They need to get right with God and change their own ways. . . . If everybody did that, we’d be all right.”
Like a lot of philanthropists, Oseola McCarty knew that giving is its own pleasure. When a journalist from People magazine asked her why she didn’t spend the money she’d saved on herself, she answered with a smile that thanks to the pleasure that comes from making a gift, “I am spending it on myself.”
“I am proud that I worked hard and that my money will help young people who worked hard to deserve it. I’m proud that I am leaving something positive in this world. My only regret is that I didn’t have more to give.”
Like a lot of philanthropists, McCarty hoped to inspire others to similar acts. And she did. In addition to the local outpouring that more than tripled her endowment, cable TV mogul Ted Turner decided to donate a billion dollars to charity after hearing her story. He was quoted in the New York Times saying, “If that little woman can give away everything she has, then I can give a billion.”
And like a lot of philanthropists, Oseola McCarty knew she didn’t have to save the whole world. She cast her buckets down and fixed what was at hand. “I can’t do everything. But I can do something to help somebody. And what I can do I will do.”
Gifts like hers cumulate with millions of others from ordinary Americans in a powerful way. Between 70 and 90 percent of U.S. households make charitable contributions every year, with the average household contribution being about $2,500. That is two to 20 times as much generosity as in equivalent Western European nations. In addition, half of all U.S. adults volunteer their time to charitable activities, totaling an estimated 20 billion hours per year.
The result: A massive charitable flow of $449.64 billion per year, with 79 percent coming from generous individuals. Only 17 percent of all annual charity in the U.S. comes in the form of foundation grants. Just 5 percent is contributed by corporations.
One may quite accurately say that it is Oseola McCarty and similar partners who make America the most generous nation on earth.
To learn more about Oseola McCarty and her other philanthropic contributions, read her Hall of Fame entry in The Almanac of American Philanthropy.