A Woman to Honor…
Eddie Mae Branch-Carter – also known as Mrs. Carter or better yet, “Mama Carter” is influential to The Branch Family Institute, a subsidiary of E.M. Branch & Associates, Inc. – as both bear her name. President and Chief Executive Officer, Brenda T. Thompson chose to name her business and nonprofit organization after her mother as homage. This is the special reason why I have sincere admiration for Mrs. Thompson and co-founders, Dr. Nikia Thompson and Jasmika Cook – Mrs. Carter’s granddaughters – and The Branch Family Institute. Even more so, Mrs. Carter is The Branch Family Institute’s foundation. She is the root from which wisdom and strength has emerged to its branches.
In the ten plus years of knowing Mama Carter, I am completely enamored by her. She is an elder Christian, south side Chicagoan, originally from the rural south with bluish-grey eyes, fully greyed short natural hair, smooth coffee brown skin, and speaks with a warm and familiar southern “Twain”.
There is nothing like hearing a good story and absorbing words from a wise elder, especially a southern black woman. So I asked Mama Carter, 50 years my senior to allow me to personally share a bit of her story and wisdom as a source of inspiration and encouragement to other women for Women’s History Month. She happily obliged.
Here’s a brief “herstory” of Mama Carter:
Mama Carter was born Eddie Mae Branch, July 1932 in Wilson, Arkansas and raised in Lilbourn, Missouri. Living in the rural outskirts of Missouri, Mama Carter assisted her mother with tending to household duties, field work such as picking and chopping cotton and raising her 5 younger siblings. Mama Carter’s father a WWI Veteran and farmer was away at different spells working farming jobs. At one point he took on a job picking cotton in Arizona. With no word from her father, times became tough for the family of seven without the stable presence and financial support of the patriarch. So at the age of seventeen and with a secondary education, Mama Carter left home and moved in with her older sister Gladys in North Chicago and went straight to work as a domestic worker for a navy doctor and his wife earning a $20 weekly wage. Every week Mama Carter sent her mother and siblings $10 until her father returned home. Five dollars was given to her sister for rent and Mama Carter was left with $5 for her own pocket.
In November of 1950, at the age of eighteen Mama Carter fell in love and married her first husband Bennie Thomas. A total of seven children were conceived but two were miscarried. Mama Carter took care of her family and continued to do domestic related work while in North Chicago. She worked at Lake Forest Hospital in the kitchen, Fort Sheridan and The Moraine Hotel respectively, tending laundry earning an average of $25 per week. With modest pay, Mama Carter was able to afford a sitter and make ends meet.
Mama Carter’s marriage became adversarial and tumultuous. She divorced in 1959, and while pregnant with her fifth child, she packed up her four children and herself and migrated to Chicago to live with her uncle on 49th & Wells – now the Englewood Community area. Initially, Mama Carter was able to find “day work” which she describes as word of mouth referral to clean different homes for a day, sometimes for the week. She eventually took on a kitchen job at a Jewish Rehabilitation Center that was located near Douglas Park – in the vicinity of where Mt. Sinai Hospital is located today.
Life took an uneasy turn for Mama Carter as it was not long before she was uprooted from her home on 49th & Wells due to the building of the Dan Ryan Expressway. In addition to that, Mama Carter was soon leaving her job to prepare for the birth of her fifth child. Right before leaving her job at the Jewish Rehabilitation Center, a coworker that was a white woman said something to Mama Carter that remained with her throughout the years, “When you laugh, the whole world laughs with you. When you cry, you cry alone.” Placing pride aside, Mama Carter temporarily turned to public aid for support. During this time Mama Carter and her children had relocated to her first apartment on her own at 32nd & Calumet and were living in poverty.
This was the lowest point of Mama Carter’s life. Public aid workers were uncaring and unreasonable welfare restrictions existed at that time. Mama Carter recalls not being able to have a television and she spoke of a neighbor also on public aid, whose couch had to be returned to goodwill. More disparaging, Mama Carter and her children were subjected to uninhabitable living conditions – rodents, no lights and no gas. Mama Carter recalls sleeping on the bottom bunk bed and her babies on the top bunk bed to protect them from the rodents.
After giving birth, Mama Carter was determined to find a better home for her children. Swiftly, back on her feet, she found work with The Chicago Towel Company tending laundry and was then able to move into a decent three bedroom apartment – in the now historic Bronzeville neighborhood – on 38th & Lake Park. Here, Mama Carter met and fell in love with her second husband Lee Carter. Love soon crept into the shadows and abuse into the forefront. While in a rollercoaster marriage, Mama Carter continued to work hard and provide for her family. She remained employed as a factory worker until she began working with the Board of Education in 1972 as a Child Welfare Attendant – taking care of special needs children and as a teacher’s aid. Mama Carter settled in the Englewood Community with her second husband and became a widow in 1982 losing her husband to cancer. She has remained a resident in Englewood for the past 50 years. In 2001, Mama Carter retired from the Board of Education and volunteers today at The Branch Family Institute. She has six living children, seventeen grandchildren, twenty-two great grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren*.
You were a working mother in your day and even do volunteer work today at The Branch Family Institute. How do you think things have evolved for women from your era?
In my time, black women did more physical work and could still go home and take of family. Now, work for the women is more mental and it seems just as tiresome especially when if you’re raising a family alone.
As a victim of domestic violence, what words of encouragement and advice do you have for women that are in abusive relationships?
Walk away. I didn’t have the best life and I went through hell. Women today are so much better than how they treat themselves. In my day, a lot of women didn’t take care of themselves. They didn’t go to the beauty shop and get their nails done, mostly because they couldn’t afford it. Treat yourself and value yourself. That way, a man is able to value you more.
Most people don’t have anything positive to say about our black men, but learning to be a man has been passed down from the previous generation and with a good role model or example men can learn to be men and start respecting their women.
I also want to say to women, don’t waste your time with a man if he hasn’t proposed to you within a year.
Black women have been stereotyped as the angry black woman/girl – loud, aggressive, even promiscuous and not fitting of normal standards of beauty – what are your thoughts on these negative stereotypes?
Well, I have blue eyes and dark skin (laughing out loud)…
Black women are beautiful – fearfully and wonderfully made. All the name calling is unnecessary and you don’t have to put up with any name calling or disrespect. Black women are so much better than what they show on the tv. Respect and love yourself and then you can respect and love others.
Much attention has been brought to the black community regarding police, gun and gang violence. As a mother, grandmother and Christian – what words of wisdom do you have for the mothers raising their children in our Chicago communities?
Take your place as a parent and take heed to your children. You are not your child’s friend and any and everybody can’t play daddy. Older folks, encourage and engage the young even if they are acting ugly. All our children need is proper training and attention. I was not perfect. I enjoyed myself, partied and everything – but God saved me good. If you receive Jesus Christ as Savior and confess from your mouth with belief that He rose from the dead, then you will be saved.
…. As Women’s History Month closes out, I give honor to Mama Carter, a strong black woman who has provided the woman I consider a mentor the drive to become a successful business owner and pioneer in the mental health, social service field and community.
Your Favorite Girl…