For the last several weeks, as a part of this fancy postdoc, I have been thinking a lot about philanthropy. Ultimately, as the university enters a series of partnerships with institutions and organizations in various places all over the African continent, my job is to make sure these partnerships look like partnerships, and not like philanthropy.
While we are supposed to think of philanthropy as this noble undertaking, it is, in many ways, a sick self-congratulatory cultural practice whereby rich people throw money at a crisis to serve themselves instead of supporting long-term and sustainable solutions to much bigger (but not unsolvable) problems.
As I was beginning to think this through, a friend of mine sent me a video of a sermon. The preacher was telling his congregants the story of Oceola McCarty, a domestic worker who is in the philanthropy hall of fame. After I got over the pure comedy of there being a philanthropy hall of fame (really?), I became fixated on this woman. My inner researcher needed to know everything about her. And what I discovered is nothing short of incredible.
Ms. Oceola was born in 1908 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. (Yes I am going to call her Ms. Oceola throughout this blog. She just feels like a Ms. Oceola because I am from the South and cannot call her McCarty like a detached journalist.) She was conceived when her mother was raped after visiting a sick relative, and was raised by her grandmother and aunt, who was a domestic worker.
Ms. Oceola began working when she was in elementary school, washing and ironing. She stashed the money in her doll buggy and never spent it. When she was in the sixth grade her aunt was hospitalized and became unable to walk. Ms. Oceola dropped out of school to care for her and began working full time as a washerwoman, which she did until she was 86 years old.
What fascinates me most about Ms. Oceola is the way that she talks about work. “We worked and it was all good work,” she explained in a short documentary about her life. Ms. Oceola never used a washing machine. She would light a fire under her tin wash pot. Soak, wash, boil, rub, wrench, and rub clothes on a washboard. Then starch them and hang them on the line. She washed all day and then ironed in the evening until almost midnight.
Did I mention that Ms. Oceola was five feet tall and one hundred pounds soaking wet? My mother once explained to me how harsh hand washing clothes could be. To get them clean you basically rubbed your hands and knuckles raw. Yet, work, to Ms. Oceola, was something beautiful and not oppressive.
A friend described her work ethic in this way:
Work became the great good of her life…She found beauty in its movement and pride in its provisions. She was happy to have it and gave herself over to it with abandon.
I can’t help but think about the fact that barely two generations before, black people in Mississippi were enslaved. Work was something they did out of compulsion and without compensation.
Ms. Oceola found a certain freedom in working. Or, to think of it another way, she exercised her freedom by working. The meaning was in the labor itself. It was more than a means of earning wages. In fact, Ms. Oceola never really enjoyed the fruits of her labor. And by that I mean, the woman never spent a penny.
She never owned a car. She had her own grocery cart that she used to walk to the store to get groceries. She considered television an unnecessary extravagance. Hell she considered a newspaper an unnecessary extravagance.
So the money grew. And as she grew older she began to realize that she couldn’t take it with her. Without any children or siblings to serve as beneficiaries, she ended up giving ten percent to her church, ten percent each to three relatives, and the remaining sixty percent to the University of Southern Mississippi, which was just a couple of blocks from her home.
Oh, and that sixty percent amounted to $150,000.
Yes you read that right. A washerwoman managed to save more than $150,000 and then just gave it all away.
As she was showing the documentary filmmaker the wash pot in which she made all that money, she explained that years ago USM was a white school. And now that it’s not she wanted to make sure that black children could go there without having to work the way that she did.
The first recipient of Ms. Oceola’s scholarship: an honors student from Hattiesburg whose grandmother had worked as a seamstress. The young girl’s grandmother was expecting a rich old benefactor and was surprised to find a black woman who had worked the way that she did.
Admittedly if I had received that scholarship you could not tell me nothing. NOTHING. No, I am not the result of affirmative action or a diversity scholarship. Not at all. That woman who was good enough to wash your dirty drawls but not good enough for your segregated university? Yeah she made sure I could be here. Oh, I would tell everyone.
But I digress.
I am grateful to the memory of Ms. Oceola for taking my mind off of philanthropy for a bit. Instead, I thought about black women’s labor. Although the amount of Ms. Oceola’s philanthropic gift to USM is what constitutes her legacy according to the internet, I can’t help but think about the fact that her work (really her worth) didn’t amount to wages.
She found meaning in her labor. And then redefined a lifetime’s worth of wages as that which allowed others to do what she could not do because she spent her life working.
To be honest I don’t have anything more profound to say about Ms. Oceola. Gosh black women are amazing. And never belong on the cutting room floor. That is all.