Lillian Carter


Biography of Lillian Carter

Bessie Lillian Gordy Carter (August 15, 1898 – October 30, 1983) was the mother of former President of the United States, Jimmy Carter. She is also known for contribution to nursing in her home state of Georgia and as a Peace Corps volunteer in India as well as writing two books during the Carter presidency.

Carter was born Bessie Lillian Gordy to James Jackson Gordy (1863–1948) and Mary Ida Nicholson (1871–1951) in Richland, Georgia in 1898. She is a biological half first-cousin of Berry Gordy, Sr., the father of Berry Gordy, Jr. who founded Motown records. She volunteered to serve as a nurse with the U.S. Army in 1917 but the program was cancelled. Instead, she worked for the US Post Office at Richland before moving to Plains in 1920 where she was accepted as a trainee at the Wise Sanitarium before completing her nursing degree at the Grady Memorial Hospital School of Nursing in Atlanta, Georgia in 1923. Lillian's family initially disapproved of her choice of a career in nursing, but she continued her training and became very successful, earning the respect of both the black and white communities. "Miss Lillian," as she was often known, allowed black people to enter her home through the front door, rather than through the back door as was the social norm, and would often have them in her living room for casual conversation just as she would a white neighbor. These conversations would even continue after her husband Earl was to arrive home expecting the guests to depart.

Lillian Carter said that the strongest influence on her liberal views was her father. James Jackson Gordy, "Jim Jack" operated a Post Office in Lillian's hometown of Richland and was always cordial and often dined with the black workers. This was very unusual in the early 20th century but Lillian decided that she would follow her father's example.

She met businessman James Earl Carter and married him immediately after her graduation. The couple had four children with U.S. President Jimmy Carter being the eldest child born in 1924. Her other three children were also somewhat notorious, Gloria (1926–1990), Ruth (1929–1983) and Billy (1937–1988). While she theoretically retired from nursing in 1925, in reality she worked as what was then called a nurse practitioner both for the hundreds of employees back in her husband's businesses and for the members of Plains community. While a religious woman, Carter was not a regular attender of church services. After some sisters at the local church organized a mission trip to Africa, Carter became upset saying that there was plenty to be done in the US before traveling to another country. She coordinated her own Bible study at home on Sunday mornings while the rest of the family attended church.

After the death of her husband from pancreatic cancer, Lillian Carter left for Auburn University where she worked for seven and a half years. A year after completing her service at Auburn, Carter managed a nursing home in Blakely.

Lillian later became a social activist, working for desegregation and providing medical care to African-Americans in Plains, Georgia.

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