Born in Springville, Mississippi, in 1922, Dr. Frances Carter grew up on her father’s farm during the Great Depression. Fran worked summers waitressing in order to attend Wood College and she taught primary school. She then moved to Birmingham, Alabama, where she became a wartime riveter. After the war, she returned to her job as a teacher. In 1998, Fran founded the American Rosie the Riveter Association as a nonprofit organization to honor the working women of World War II, preserve the legacy of Rosies, and facilitate fellowship among Rosies and their families.
In this interview, Fran Carter speaks about her childhood, summer employment, and becoming a primary school teacher on a defense certificate. Fran discusses the first time she heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. She discusses how she acquired a teaching job in Thaxton, Mississippi, after graduating from Wood College and how she went on to work in the defense industry a Birmingham Airline Center. After a brief career as a riveter, Fran recollects how she went back to teaching and became engaged. She ends the interview by discussing her non-profit organization, the Rosie the Riveter Association.
Daddy “Signed My Birth Certificate Three Different Places”
My daddy was a doctor and a farmer. And so he delivered me. I don’t think you can doctor on you own family now, but he did. He delivered me and about twenty more babies in the community, when he got to farming instead of being a doctor.
So he signed my birth certificate three different places. He was the father and the doctor and the county clerk. [laughter] He was a busy man.
Learning About Pearl Harbor in the Infirmary
The war started in 1941, and I was a sophomore at that time. And when it happened, I was in the infirmary at Wood with flu. There were three girls that had flu, and they put us in there in isolation in the hospital or infirmary.
And my roommate broke the rule and slipped in and told me about Pearl Harbor. Later, we found out—her name was Ruth Morgan—her cousin got killed that afternoon.
Conscientious Objectors and Scientific Experimentation
They all stayed on in school, except one guy felt he could not go and kill people, and he said he was gonna be a conscientious objector. When it came time for him to go, he went to an institution of some sort, where they ran tests on him, ate certain foods, and took certain medicines and so forth. He sort of served as a research person—we might say a “guinea pig,” we used to say. He was helping with the war effort, but he was not being asked to take up a gun and kill people.
We were doing research studies on what would happen, give the boys more energy and so forth. And it was food; it was medicine; I don’t know what all it was. But anyway, they were studied. They were put in institutions, so they could regulate and see what they were eating, what they were exercising and doing. They were trying to figure out how to keep the boys healthy that were fighting.
Because women didn’t fight during World War II, not on the regular line. They didn’t go to the real war effort. Now, they were American pilots and they did some of the war industry. But they didn’t go and get in the foxholes, and be on the front lines shooting.
Improvising Recess and Lunch Outside at a Rural School
We didn’t have any playground equipment either. They had about five swings, and there was a full eight grades and then the high school. I had to go out and play, and during those times we didn’t have a cafeteria, because that was unknown in schools out in the rural areas where this was—it was pretty close to my home.
And so what I did, I’d get out and play games with them. I don’t know whether you ever heard of “Drop the Handkerchief?” We’d sing songs sometimes as we’d play. I had to get them in a circle where I could see them all and know I had them all with me. But since we didn’t have a cafeteria, they ate there. I used to save a biscuit and sausage for lunch. That was about what they had for lunch.
Then they finished that in twenty minutes, and I had then forty minutes to play, to do something with them until one o’clock came and we could come back into the classroom. And so I just got out there and played with them and watched them, and I kept counting them. Then, in the afternoon, I had to be sure they all got on the bus.
A Bright Boy Who Wouldn’t Speak
At Thaxton, Mississippi, teaching, and I was about 19. You were wondering how I managed. It didn’t bother me at all. I just swung with it.
I did have a problem, though. A little boy wouldn’t talk to me, and he didn’t say a word the whole year. But I’d send him up to the board to work a math problem, because he wouldn’t talk, and he would do it. Then I’d ask him to read and he wouldn’t, but he would run his finger under the words and keep up with where the other person was reading. So I knew he was comprehending. I didn’t know what to do, but I decided to pass him.
The next year, I didn’t teach there. I taught at another school, just first-graders, and I heard that he said one word to his teacher, and then he didn’t say any more that year. It took him until to the third year to start talking.
Now, we were living out in the country. You had a public health department in the town, which was six miles away, and that was the only help I had to get, to try to find out what was wrong with him. So we didn’t find out what was wrong with him. But he started talking in the third grade.
I even went to the home one night and spent the night, just to see if he would talk with me at home. I thought something had happened that caused him to be afraid. He would talk, but when he heard me coming into the room, he would stop. And then he would talk to his people—they drove a wagon to catch the school bus, and he would talk in the wagon with his family. But when he got on the school bus he wouldn’t say a word. I never did know what was wrong with him, but he grew up normal and married twice.
“You Forget a Person’s Features, But You Remember Their Spirit”
I was coming home to Mississippi. At that time, my parents still lived in Mississippi, and I was going to come home to there. But when he called, then I thought he said, “I’ll be at the Greyhound bus station.” He said he knew there would just be one Greyhound bus station in Hattiesburg and I could find that. If he said a store, we might not find it. So I went down, and I thought he would be one lone soldier standing up by a lamp post. So I thought I’d just catch a taxi and go right to the bus station. [My mama would have had a fit knowing] I was out at that time of night.
But anyway, I got there, and there were soldiers all over the street. [laughter] I went pushing my way through, and everybody thought I was a loose woman, but I finally found John. See, I was afraid I wouldn’t know him. He’d been gone twenty months. So I had forgotten his face—you forget the person’s features, but you remember their spirit when you’ve been separated like that. So I was afraid I might not find him when I saw all those men there, and I was getting about to panic about it. I was shoving through, and the men all saw me, and they all thought I was a loose woman there at midnight. I told John I could have gotten 100 dates that night.
And I took my suitcase, because Mama was ill, and she had been wanting me to come on home for Christmas. So I went on home that night, because he had to go back to Camp Shelby. But I had to change buses in Laurel about 2 A.M. in the morning, so he said, “I want to ride with you. I’ll buy a ticket, a round-trip ticket from Hattiesburg to Laurel, Mississippi, and then I’ll buy my ticket and come back, and you can go on to Pontotoc.” And so I did that. And I got in about daylight, and he got in about daylight to Camp Shelby. I think he went back after all the taxis had quit running; I think he had to walk about twelve miles back to camp, got there about daylight, and all the boys said that, “You didn’t do that! You stayed the night with her.” [laughter]
Waiting Tables and Missing her Future Husband
He went to Clarke College, which was a Baptist junior college in Newton, Mississippi. Well, they came up to Wood College to play basketball, and I had to wait tables. That was my job, waiting tables, when I was working three hours a day, cooking and waiting tables. So I waited tables, and he was at the table. But it was a group of old boys, and I didn’t know ‘em. They were talking and laughing and so forth. So I didn’t realize that he was at that table. He remembered me, but I don’t remember him because there were about ten at the table and I was trying to get all the food served. [laughter]