Bessie Lillian Carter

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Bessie Lillian Carter (Gordy)

Also Known As: "Lillian Carter/ Bessie Lillian Carter"
Birthdate: (85)
Birthplace: Richland, Georgia, United States
Death: October 30, 1983 (85)
Americus, Georgia, United States (breast, bone and pancreatic cancers)
Place of Burial: Georgia, United States
Immediate Family:

Daughter of James "Jim Jack" Gordy and Mary Ida Gordy
Wife of James Earl Carter, Sr.
Mother of James Earl Carter, Jr.; Jimmy Carter, 39th President of the United States; Gloria Spann; Ruth Stapleton and William "Billy" Alton Carter
Sister of Annie Lee Webb; Lem Gordy; James Jackson Gordy, Jr.; Tom Watson Gordy; Elizabeth Braunstein and 3 others

Occupation: Nurse, Post Office Employee, President's mother, Registered Nurse
Managed by: Jacqueli Charlene Finley
Last Updated:

About Bessie Lillian Carter

Bessie Lillian Gordy Carter 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.

Bessie Lillian Gordy was born to James Jackson Gordy (1863-1948) and Mary Ida Nicholson (1871-1951) in Richland, Georgia in 1898. She volunteered to serve as a nurse with the US 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 Sanatorium before completing her nursing degree at the Grady Memorial Hospital School of Nursing in Atlanta 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, would not allow blacks to enter her home through the back door, which was common practice at the time. Instead, she made them enter through the front 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, Georgia 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 famous, 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.

In 1966, at the age of 68, Carter applied for the Peace Corps. After completing a psychiatric evaluation, she received three months of training and was sent to India where she worked at the Godrej Colony 30 miles (48 km) from Mumbai where she worked for 21 months including with lepers. Emory University established the Lillian Carter Center for International Nursing in honor of the work she did in India. The Atlanta Regional Office of the Peace Corps has named an award in her honor for volunteers over 50 who make the biggest contribution.

In 1966, at the age of 68, Carter applied for the Peace Corps. After completing a psychiatric evaluation, she received three months of training and was sent to India where she worked at the Godrej Colony 30 miles (48 km) from Mumbai where she worked for 21 months including with lepers. Emory University established the Lillian Carter Center for International Nursing in honor of the work she did in India. The Atlanta Regional Office of the Peace Corps has named an award in her honor for volunteers over 50 who make the biggest contribution.

Lillian Carter was well known as "Miss Lillian" and she published two books during his Presidency, Miss Lillian and Friends and Away from Home: Letters to my Family, both published in 1977. The latter book was a collection of letters to her family sent when she was in India for the Peace Corps.

"Miz Lillian" was a favorite of the press for her Southern charm and down-to-earth manner. For reporters and interrogators alike, she always had a warm country sass response for every question. She once remarked "When I look at my four children sometimes I say to myself, Lillian, you should have stayed a virgin."

In 1977 Miss Lillian appeared in a cameo, as herself, in the made-for-TV movie, "Lucy Calls the President", starring Lucille Ball.

When son Billy Carter's beer business had its ribbon cutting ceremony, a friend questioned Miss Lillian on whether or not she would attend. She remarked: "I attended Jimmy's inauguration didn't I?"

On the day of Jimmy's inauguration, Miss Lillian was asked if she was proud of her son and she asked blandly, Which one?

Lillian died on October 30, 1983, at age 85 in Americus, Georgia.

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Bessie Lillian Carter's Timeline

1898
August 15, 1898
Richland, Georgia, United States
1924
October 1, 1924
Age 26
Plains, Sumter, Georgia, United States
1926
October 22, 1926
Age 28
Plains, Sumter, Georgia, United States
1929
August 7, 1929
Age 30
Plains, Georgia, United States
1937
March 29, 1937
Age 38
Plains, Georgia, United States
1983
October 30, 1983
Age 85
Americus, Georgia, United States
November 1, 1983
Age 85
Georgia, United States