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Role of the Laundress and a Washerwoman's Legacy of Giving

Updated: Mar 4

To celebrate and educate Black History Month, I spent a couple of days at Proviso West High School to demonstrate the role of the enslaved laundress.

The enslaved laundress did all the laundry for the slaveowner's family. She did the bedding, clothes, curtains, table linen, drapes, etc. Monday was "Wash Day." She had to sort, bat, boil, wash, rinse, air dry, iron, mend and fold. There was no way that one laundress can do all the laundry. She would have other women and children to help her with this difficult task. It would take several days to do the laundry.

I showed the students how lye soap and indigo were made by hand. The laundress would get chemical burns making the lye soap.

Children also helped the laundress. They had to get buckets of clean water using a shoulder yoke. There may be a well close around or they would have to walk several miles to a river to get water.

The students had never seen a washboard before. I showed them how to wash with a washboard and iron using a sad iron. The iron would weigh between five to nine pounds or more and the laundress arms would get sore and tired. The iron would be heated on a plate or close to a fire. When the iron gets hot, the handle gets heated as well. The laundress would have to use a thick cloth or rag to pick up the iron. Sometimes, the laundress would get burns and blisters on their hands.

I told the students about the life and legacy of Oseola McCarty. She was a washerwoman. Raised by her grandmother and aunt, they taught her how to wash clothes and iron.

As a child, when she finished school, she would go home and wash and iron. The money she got paid for washing and ironing, she would stash her money in her doll buggy.

In the 1960s, she purchased a washer and dryer, thinking it would be easier for her to do her job. The clothes were not cleaned as she liked and the whites turned a yellowish color. She got rid of her washer and dryer and went back to the Maid-Rite washboard.

In 1995, she retired due to decades of washing and ironing, she developed arthritis. When she retired, she saved $280,000. She donated 10% to her church, 30% to family and 60% to the University of Southern Mississippi. When Ms. McCarty was a child, the university was segregated. She remembered walking pass the university and was not allowed to attend. She wanted her money to be a scholarship and be given to African American students who needed financial help. Ms. McCarty donated $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi.


The first Oseola McCarty Scholarship went to Stephanie Bullock. She received $1,000.00. Ms. McCarty and Ms. Bullock became real close. Ms. Bullock invited Ms. McCarty to her college graduation.


Ms. McCarty became an instant celebrity. She received an honorary degree from the University of Southern Mississippi, an honorary doctorate degree from Harvard University and President Bill Clinton awarded Ms. McCarty the Presidential Citizen Award.


She was asked, does she have any regrets and her response was "I wish I could have gave more."

Ms. McCarty died September 26, 1999, and is buried at Highland Cemetery in Hattiesburg, MS. There is a park in her name and her home will be turned into a museum.

The students enjoyed the presentation. I advised the students to talk to their parents, grandparents and great grandparents to learn about their family. History is very important and its imperative that in order to have a future, they have to know their past.


I also told the students the importance of an education and the generosity of Ms. McCarty. She had a 6th grade education but she unselfishly gave the majority of her savings to students that needed financial assistance to get the education to excel in their future career endeavors.


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