By Tom Lowrey, Education Assistant
He was the fastest cotton picker in town. As a youngster growing up in a sharecropping family on the outskirts of Bentonia, Mississippi, Ernest “Ernie” Carter was quick to learn the value of hard work. The oldest of seven children (along with his twin sister), he applied his strong work ethic and competitive spirit to everything he did. There are still scars on his hands imparted by the sharp barbs of the cotton stalks as he raced down the rows. The older men in town used to bet money on how many bags he could pick in a day.
As you might imagine, sharecropping was very hard work, and during cotton hoeing and cotton picking, the whole family had to pitch in. They worked long days, only resting on Saturday afternoons and Sundays. From age seven to age fourteen, the only time Ernie would go to school was when it rained, because the economic survival of the family had to take precedence over getting an education.
Electricity and running water didn’t exist in the family home. There were two fireplaces, and Ernie was in charge of getting up and lighting the fires in the morning. “We had four or five people in a bed,” says Ernie, “so we slept across the bed. I didn’t get a bed to myself until much later, when I went to college. That was really fascinating for me.”
“When most kids were thinking about what sports they were getting ready for, we were hoeing cotton, and in the fall we were picking cotton. Because of this situation, getting an education was really difficult. So what I would do is, when I got done in the fields, I would sneak up to my school, go to my classroom, and go to the trash can to try to figure out what happened on any given day. I had to walk up the road about two or three miles. One day my mom noticed the blue ink on my hands (from the dittoed papers I had been looking at). When she asked me about it, I had to tell the truth. You just didn’t lie to my mother. So she forbid me to do it, but after a while I did it anyway, because I was so determined to get an education.”
“One day I was hoeing cotton, and it was really hot, over 100 degrees, and when I finished my row I looked back and saw all these people, many of whom were 60 or 65 years old, and we had no electricity in the home, had no way of knowing what was out in the world, never went to places like the restaurant or the zoo. All I knew was right there in my town. And I thought to myself, ‘This is not going to be me when I’m 65. No way.’ I didn’t know how that was going to happen, but I knew that a lifetime of sharecropping wasn’t going to happen to me.’”
To make things more difficult for Ernie, he had learning problems. Reading was difficult for him, and he stuttered. “So I learned poetry, to recite to myself and to my family, and that helped me to overcome the stuttering.”
Fortunately, Ernie had some people to look up to. “Everybody needs someone to help them along the way, and I’m no exception to that. Because I didn’t go to school, I couldn’t do sports. I was considered a gifted athlete because I could run fast, I could jump, and I could do some things that the average kid my age just couldn’t do. One day I happened to be at the school, playing tag with some eighth graders my age, and the guys just couldn’t touch me! The football coach was watching, and he came up and talked to me, but I said, ‘Coach, I have to be in the fields. I just can’t play sports. Besides, I don’t know anything about football. We don’t have a TV and I’ve never seen a game.’ And he said, ‘Why don’t I go talk to your mom?’ So he asked her if I could go to the fields in the morning, and go to school in the afternoon… and she said yes! Not only that, she said that all of us could go during the afternoons.”
It paid off big time for Ernie. He was a three-sport athlete in high school, went to Alcorn State University, and then got his Master’s degree at Miami of Ohio. And that’s where, in 1972, Mr. Don Chamberlain recruited Mr. Ernie Carter for a teaching/coaching job in Midland, Michigan, where he worked until 2004 while raising a family with his wonderful wife Linda, also a teacher. In 2017, Coach Carter was inducted in the Midland High School Athletic Hall of Fame, and the following was written about him:
“Carter’s boys & girls cross country and boys track teams have won numerous league and regional championships. He has been honored 15 times by the Saginaw Valley League as its cross country coach of the year and three times as the boys track coach of the year. He received the Lloyd Osborne Award in 1993 and was the inaugural Bob Stoppert Coach of the year award winner in 2004-2005. Carter was awarded the prestigious Gerstacker Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1995. He has a passion for storytelling and memorizing poetry and has inspired countless Chemics with his positive attitude and relentless work ethic.”
That work ethic was instilled in him by the many good people in his life, including his firm but loving mother and his football coach. “I was always told ‘You don’t do things just to get by… you do the best that you can.’”
Ernie Carter has faced many challenges in his life… growing up a sharecropper, fighting hard to get an education, and sometimes facing hatred in the segregated Mississippi of the 50’s and 60’s. But he rose to those challenges. “It wasn’t like a I was living a horrible life,” says Ernie. “It was all I knew.”
By the way, Ernie hasn’t lost his love of poetry. He continues to memorize and recite the works of his favorite poets, from Rudyard Kipling to Langston Hughes to Robert Frost. And, luckily for us here at Senior Services, he has agreed to come to Lunchtime Learners (when the current unpleasantness has abated) and share some of their works with us! We look forward to his visit!