STAFFORD: At 100, Hazel Carter looks forward to seeing Bill again

Tom Stafford

Combined ShapeCaption
Tom Stafford

Hazel Carter was dreaming that she had passed away. In the dream, she came upon the beloved man she was married to for 74 years until his death seven years ago. Upon her arrival, the late and apparently impatient Bill Carter asked the obvious question: What took you so long?

Mrs. Carter is looking forward to spending time in the afterlife with man who hand machined their wedding ring in 1942 with Witt, her nickname, stamped into it.

But, as Mrs. Carter often says, their reunion will be " in God’s time, not our time.”

And tomorrow she’s booked to celebrate her 100th birthday.

“They’ve kept me in the dark,” about the party, she says in an exasperated voice.

But then, what can you do with a bunch of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren that behave like that?

Fair Street in an Unfair Time

Little Hazel was born to George and Hazel Welch on June 20, 1922, in the City Hospital that sat on Selma Road – and in much different Springfield.

When she was 6 months old, her father, who was from Caribbean Islands, left, leaving her mother, Alice Welch, to raise Hazel and her brother, George, alone.

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Bill and Hazel Carter, left, were the king and queen of the Golden Wedding Celebration in 2014 at the Clark County Fair for being married for 72 years. They are posing for a picture with their son, Bill, Jr., and his wife, Carol, who have been married for 52 years. Bill Lackey/Staff

Credit: Bill Lackey

Bill and Hazel Carter, left, were the king and queen of the Golden Wedding Celebration in 2014 at the Clark County Fair for being married for 72 years. They are posing for a picture with their son, Bill, Jr., and his wife, Carol, who have been married for 52 years. Bill Lackey/Staff

Credit: Bill Lackey

Combined ShapeCaption
Bill and Hazel Carter, left, were the king and queen of the Golden Wedding Celebration in 2014 at the Clark County Fair for being married for 72 years. They are posing for a picture with their son, Bill, Jr., and his wife, Carol, who have been married for 52 years. Bill Lackey/Staff

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Their 538 Fair St. home was torn down about four years ago. But decrepit remains of the old Fulton School she attended still stand on Dibert Street. Mention of it led her to break into a rousing rendition of “Fulton Will Shine” and memories of singing the song the school song written by the principal as he accompanied students with his violin.

Among them was the school’s lone white student, Georgia Jenkins.

Keifer was brand new when she attended the junior high of both whites and Blacks. Many of the Black students were from the immediate neighborhood; others made their way over from Mound Street. One of her many buddies at Keifer was Mary Goings.

“You could spend a day here, and I’d be talking about all the people,” said Carter, whose capacity for befriending has amassed a huge total over 100 years.

Her uncompromised memory recalls the wider Springfield of that era.

Until the Fairbanks Theater was built and opened up its fire escape as a balcony entrance, “colored people, as we were called, were not permitted downtown to the theater,” Carter said. “That was a no-no then.

“You could go to the stores,” she added, where “colored” people weren’t allowed to try anything on but could lay away purchases for 50 cents a week.

Trying to get certified

When she graduated from Springfield High School with the Class of January, 1941, she set her sights on nursing “because I had seen many midwives that were black” but had been unable to be certified as nurses.

To earn money for schooling, she worked for $3.50 a week in the kitchen of the Kerrigan home on Perrin Avenue two doors from Center Street.

Subsequently, “I tried the Springfield (City) Hospital” and was told “there are no Blacks in our program.

“I wanted to go North to Chicago,” she added, but on the south side of 5-feet was judged not to have the necessary size to do the job. That now sounds funny, “but it wasn’t funny to me,” she said. “I cried, and I cried and I cried.”

Her final option was Atlanta’s Grady Hospital, which she attended for a year, in which she learned the fundamentals of both nursing and Southern inhospitality.

“That’s where I learned about Colored drinking fountains and to get out of the street.”

She wrote to her mother, saying segregated Atlanta was “so bad, I’m coming home.”

She also promised to repay the funds her mother had been sending her for schooling.

Got Milk?

On her return in September of 1942, she reconnected Bill Carter, who was from Stamping Ground, Ky., a town named for the way buffaloes had once made their presence felt near a natural spring.

Both were in President Franklin Roosevelt’s National Youth Organization. He was learning to be a machinist. She was working in a support position earning more than she could as a domestic.

They met the day “Witt,” as she was called in those days, was with Ann “Yank” Avery serving meals to the NYO machinists at Wright Field. Hazel said: “See that tall guy in the leather jacket? He’s cute.” Yank, the more assertive of the two, told Hazel to say something to him, but that proved unnecessary, Witt recalled. “He said something to me.”

The something was that he didn’t drink coffee the two young women were putting in thermoses for all the men. So, breaking protocol, Witt filled his thermos with milk and, like a wartime spy, pointed discretely to it so he’d know which one to take.

A slow start

They were married in the Yellow Springs Street home of the Rev. W.S. Smith on Friday, Oct. 9, 1942, though only after Bill got his paycheck. The minister did a double-take on the wedding ring he machined for her has “Witt” on it – the same ring Mrs. Carter pulled out a drawer this week.

Bill got his World War II draft notice the next February and enlisted in the Navy rather than answering the call of the Army. But when he marched in uniform in the front door of Shawnee Hotel to visit Hazel at her workplace, he was told that — like all the other “coloreds” — he would have to enter through the back door.

At least he wasn’t searched for silverware Iike Carter and her mother were at the end of a shift.

Bill’s sense of duty later would impress Springfield postal carrier Lonnie Bell, who, during the war, delivered a letter to Hazel from Bill every Tuesday through Friday -- and two on Monday because there was no Sunday delivery.

When Hazel had trouble getting pregnant, and she visited a series of Navy doctors. But after the war, the dam broke.

Bill Jr. was born in July of 1944. Ann, Fred, Michael and Cathy had arrived by 1953. Donald was the last in the convoy, 10 years behind. All remain bright-eyed, bushy tailed and burning with the energy of their parents and all of whom are college graduates.

Mercy Me

After the war, her husband got a machinist’s job at then Wright Field, while Mrs. Carter reset her sights on becoming a nurse.

“I told Bill I didn’t want to cook in a white woman’s kitchen anymore.”

So, in the early 1950s, she applied to the nursing program at the new Mercy Hospital, but heard nothing.

“Being a woman, I took the bull by the horns and went to Fr. Shine,” who was the priest at St. Bernard Catholic Church. Once he had established to his satisfaction that she was, indeed, one of his parishioners, he called Sr. Camille at Mercy. She allowed that if Carter could get her application and pass the entry exam she could start the session beginning the next Monday.

On that Friday in January, Carter immediately made the snowy walk from St. Bernard’s up the long hill to the hospital on North Fountain Boulevard, where took and passed the test.

“I had already had a year down in Atlanta, so it was a piece of cake for me,” she said. And Sr. Camille would become the icing on top.

“She was wonderful, wonderful, wonderful,” Mrs. Carter said, directing her to continuing education programs and helping in any way she could.

All this time, Bill Carter was facing some of the same frustrations, including a job demoted in his machinist job at Wright Field. Such frustrations built to the point that he was ready to quit and tell them all what he thought of them. Then, “I asked him what me and the children would do,” Mrs. Carter recalls. “The money was good back then. He stayed there are retired from there.”

So, Bill took a very breath and continued what would grow into a 35-year career there.

From Nettie and Cheryl

Covid, of course, has interrupted everything.

But this year, the Mrs. Carter’s third born, Fred, a retired firefighter, has come from Los Angeles again for his annual visit with his mother. Looking 20 years younger than his 73 years, he offered a simple explanation for his annual visits to his parents’ home: “They’re my heroes. It’s as simple as that.”

Granddaughters Wynette (Nettie) and Cheryl Carter, voiced similar sentiments that, together, would make a memorable series of birthday cards for their grandmother’s 100th.

From Nettie:

Your million dollar smile is so welcoming.

Thank you for the stories you shared with me about growing up and how African Americans were treated -- all of the things you had to navigate and the sacrifices you made.

Thanks for embodying what a black woman that’s a wife, a mother, a grandmother -- that’s an aunt, a cousin a friend -- should be.

Thanks for giving us the blueprint on how to treat people, how to do the right thing, and how to work through adversity with a smile. And be good leaders.

From Cheryl

Thanks for being my friend in my 40s – for filling in a lot of holes in my understanding of Springfield -- and your gift of being able to talk with anyone, from the youngest to the oldest.

Thank you for not giving up after grandpa died, and, as family picture taker, assembling family pictures albums for all of us.

Thanks for your stories about you and your mother, who had so little, making and giving sandwiches to others who had even less. And by teaching us through example how to give.

Thank you for making all your children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren each feel special, despite the vast number of us.

Happy birthday

A final card should be added.

It would evoke the birthday greeting her late husband offered every June 20th.

Born four months after her in October of 1922, on her every birthday, Bill Carter would ask her another obvious question: How does it feel to be sleeping with a younger man?

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