The Working Woman
Oseola McCarty’s early life was ordinary. She grew up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. She was raised by her mother and grandmother, and dropped out of school in the 6th grade to take care of an aunt who had fallen ill. From the time she was a little girl, she worked doing laundry and ironing for families in Hattiesburg, living frugally and saving her money.
And although she had never visited the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi, located in her hometown, she made an extraordinary decision: She arranged to give the bulk of her life savings—$150,000—to the college for student scholarships. This remarkable act of selflessness and generosity is a testament to the power of an individual, regardless of wealth or status, to use the resources they have to help others.
Oseola McCarty came from an industrious family. She recalled her mother working very hard at multiple jobs to support her daughter, and she herself began working while still in elementary school. Her mother also taught her the value of saving, helping her to open a savings account at a local bank to deposit her earnings. After McCarty left school to take care of her sick aunt, she decided not to return because all of her classmates had already moved on to higher grades. So, she kept working. And saving.
“I put it in savings,” she said. “I never would take any of it out. I just put it in. It just accumulated.” McCarty’s thrifty lifestyle over 75 years of work enabled her to put away a significant amount of money. She never owned a car and pushed her shopping cart over a mile away to buy groceries. At the time of her retirement, she had traveled outside of Mississippi only once,to visit Niagara Falls when she was a young woman. She never married, had no children and lived in the simple house she inherited from an uncle in 1947. She lived alone since 1967, after her grandmother, mother and aunt had all died.
Though her own schooling ended at a very young age, McCarty recognized education as a tool to help other poor African-Americans to improve their lives. She spent her entire working life in Hattiesburg her home was only a few miles from the University of Southern Mississippi but she had never set foot on the college campus. Still, it was her community’s local university and she wanted to support its students: “I wanted to give it to the college. They used to not let colored people go out there, but now they do, and I think they should have it.”
After giving up her own chance at receiving a public education in order to serve others, McCarty recognized that her lifetime spent working and saving could transform the lives of young people who wanted to learn. “I know it won’t be too many years before I pass on, and I just figured the money would do them a lot more good than it would me,” she said. “I’m too old to get an education, but they can.”
McCarty worked until 1994, when at 86 she quit washing clothes due to arthritis. In the last few years of her working life, staff at her bank noticed that she was accumulating sizable savings and helped her to invest in conservative mutual funds and set up CDs to help her funds grow. Bank managers also talked with her about how to set up a trust to ensure that she would be well taken care of in her old age, and to decide what she wanted to happen to her estate after she died. It was then that she voiced her wishes to pay for scholarships for financially needy African-American students at Southern Miss. After allocating gifts to her church and some cousins, she decided to dedicate $150,000, representing 60 percent of her life’s savings, to a scholarship fund. In 1995 she signed a trust agreement outlining her wishes for her estate, stating that the grant to endow the scholarship fund would be made to the university after her death. Although these transactions are normally kept confidential,the bank asked if they could make her gift public, due to its uniqueness. “Well, I guess that would be all right,” she said.
The announcement immediately caused a sensation. The pledge of $150,000 was the largest gift Southern Miss had ever received from an African-American donor and represented a radical departure from typical philanthropy. Bill Pace,the executive director of the University of Southern Mississippi Foundation,said, “I’ve been in the business 24 years now, in private fundraising. 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 has.”
McCarty’s gift surprised her with a sudden onslaught of national and global attention. Among the many honors and recognitions inspired by her gift:
She traveled to the White House to meet with President Clinton and the Congressional Black Caucus.
She was presented with the Presidential Citizens Medal, one of the highest civilian awards in the nation.
She was awarded an honorary doctoral degree from Harvard University.
Stories about her gift were aired on every major television network and appeared on the front page of the New York Times.
She carried the torch as part of the 1996 Olympics.
She was featured on Barbara Walters’ “The 10 Most Fascinating People of 1995.”
The story of Oseola McCarty’s gift was a tremendous inspiration to others, and business leaders from Hattiesburg and everyday people around the country made donations to the Southern Miss Foundation to add to her scholarship fund.Though McCarty’s gift was not officially made to the University until her death in 1999, outside contributions boosted the scholarship fund to more than $300,000, allowing the school to make its first scholarship award in the same year as the initial pledge.
The Oseola McCarty Scholarship Fund made its first gift of $1,000 to a graduating senior from Hattiesburg High School, StephanieBullock, who calls McCarty her “honorary grandmother.” The following year, another USM student from Hattiesburg, Carletta Barnes, was awarded a scholarship. It is these scholarships that McCarty said she is the most proud of, rather than all the national honors and recognition she received since her gift was announced.
Major philanthropists count McCarty among their role models of generosity and self-sacrifice. In 1997, Ted Turner was so moved by McCarty’s gift that he pledged $1 billion to United Nations relief programs. A children’s book called The Riches of Oseola McCarty by Evelyn Coleman was published to teach young people about the power of philanthropy and how one person can make a lasting difference. “I can’t do everything,” McCarty said. “But I can do something to help somebody. And what I can do I will do. I wish I could do more.”