Ozeola McCarthy: The story of an ordinary American laundress who earned the president’s award and the honor of carrying the Olympic flame

What can an African-American girl who started working as a laundress before she graduated from high school accomplish in life? It would seem that her fate is sealed. It is poverty and hard work until old age with no chance of ever changing her life. But there are exceptions to every rule. Ozeola McCarthy, a laundress from Mississippi, reached heights she could never have dreamed of, giving hope for a better future to thousands of African Americans through her daily persistence.

The name of Ozeola McCarthy is known to many in America, despite the fact that all her life this woman did nothing but wash dirty laundry. She had no education and no profession. After finishing sixth grade, she left school. Attention and care were required by her aunt, who was seriously ill.

The girl worked hard, she was not afraid of hard work. From the money she received she tried to set aside at least something every day. Someone suggested that she could open a bank account for savings, and so Ozeola did. Her deposits were paltry, no more than one and a half dollars a day. There was no clear purpose for saving money: first, for her grandmother’s old age, then for her mother and aunt. When none of her relatives were alive, Ozeola did not stop saving. She still came to the bank day after day. The depositor didn’t even pay much attention to what happened to her account, how it wandered from bank to bank during the years of crisis due to bankruptcy.

Ozeola never spent much: she did not start a family, did not have a car, did not change her place of residence (the house she inherited), did not travel, and did not spend money on entertainment. Despite this, the woman was not interested in the state of her account (the savings went for more than 75 years). Ozeola was used to working all her life, so she worked in her old age, knowing that she had to support herself no matter what.

When the bank officials checked her account, they couldn’t believe their eyes. Over the years there were savings of a quarter of a million. Ozeola herself didn’t believe it either when she heard the news of her wealth, and decided not to take the money out of the account. She said she didn’t need anything and wanted to donate some of her savings to the church, give some to her immediate family, and spend some on something truly worthwhile.

Ozeola McCarthy thought long and hard about where to spend what she had set aside. After a while she decided she needed to create a fund to help African-American youth get a college education. As a young woman, Ozeola dreamed of becoming a nurse, but instead had to devote her life to work.

The mission of the McCarthy-funded foundation is to help African-Americans from Mississippi go to university and receive free education and scholarships. The act of the common laundress so impressed American billionaire Ted Turner that he gave considerable support to the foundation. Ozeola was touched to the core by what an important cause she had been able to start.

At the end of her life Ozeola was showered with awards and all sorts of honors: she had the honor to carry the Olympic flame in 1996, she received the UN award, an honorary doctorate from Harvard University and a presidential award from Bill Clinton. Ozeola passed away in 1999. She died at the zenith of her fame, only a year shy of the first student who studied with a scholarship established by Ozeola to receive a university degree.

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