Oseola McCarty: From Washerwoman To Philanthropist



In 1998,  Oseola McCarty, a career washer woman from Hattiesburg MA, was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Southern Mississippi (USM). This was the first such degree awarded by the university, and McCarty remains the University’s most renowned benefactor.

McCarty drew nationwide attention after it was announced in July 1995 that she had established a trust, a large portion of which ($150,000 in total) would be left to the university to provide scholarships to underprivileged students at her death.

McCarty quit school in the 6th grade to care for a childless homebound aunt and at a very young age, Oseola’s mother taught her the value of saving money and living modestly. She opened her first savings account at First Mississippi National Bank, and over the years  opened several other accounts at area banks including Trustmark National Bank. As her savings accumulated over time, she appointed Trustmark as trustee and executor of her estate.

McCarty never owned a car, as she considered it an extravagance she did not warrant. She enjoyed walking sometimes miles to run errands like grocery shopping — pushing a cart as she trudged along the roads. In 1947, her uncle gave her the house she would live in until her death though she could have lived in a less modest house. The money she received when her mother passed away was placed into savings as well, somehow honoring the memory of the woman who taught her how to save.

Eventually Trustmark Bank employees noticed McCarty’s savings account, and began to assist her in planning her estate. Bank employees and other friends were so impressed by her unique situation and generous plans for her hard earned savings, that they convinced McCarty to splurge on two small window air conditioners for her house and cable television service, which she finally agreed to.

McCarty sat down with a local attorney, for whom she had done laundry, and officially settled the distribution of her estate, 60% to the University of Southern Mississippi, specifically and only for those who could not afford the tuition otherwise.

When news of McCarty’s plan made the press, an endowment was made in her honor by prominent local leaders.

In addition to her honorary degree from USM she received many awards and honors celebrating  her generous spirit: In 1997, McCarty received the Award for Greatest Public Service Benefiting the Disadvantaged, President Bill Clinton presented her with a Presidential Citizens Medal — the nation’s second highest civilian award, she was recognized with an Essence Award and Patti LaBelle sang tribute to her during the ceremony at Madison Square Garden, and she also won the United Nations’ Avicenna Medal for educational commitment.

For a woman who didn’t graduate from high school, Oseola McCarty eventually held multiple honorary degrees. In 1996 Harvard University awarded McCarty an honorary doctorate alongside Maya Lin, Walter Annenberg, and Judith Jameson..

In the end, Oseola McCarty, the washer woman from Hattiesburg MA inspired many to give generously. Upon hearing her story, cable TV mogul Ted Turner decided to donate a billion dollars to charity. 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.”

Featured photos: Philanthropy Roundtable, Detroit Foundation

Written by

Elizabeth Creekmore is a philanthropist, humanitarian, mother and Southern culture enthusiast located in Jackson, Mississippi.