Tag Archives: Lillie Mae Carter

My friend and critic

After graduating from State Street High School as its valedictorian in 1936, Bowling Green, Kentucky native Lillie Mae (Bland) Carter earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Tennessee State University, married, had four children, and pursued a career as a first grade and remedial reading teacher in the Toledo, Ohio public school system.  A civic activist and champion of African American history and literature, Carter encouraged her students to express themselves through writing. 

Carter herself was an author, editor and poet.  Her books included Black Thoughts (1971), a volume of poetry, and Doing It Our Way (1975), an anthology of multi-generational poetry and prose.  But like most writers, Carter encountered obstacles to getting her work published.  This struggle helped her form a bond with one of the most prolific purveyors of the black experience to the world, the poet, author, playwright and icon of the “Harlem Renaissance,” Langston Hughes.

“The only way I know to achieve publication,” Hughes wrote Carter in 1947, “is to continually submit one’s work to magazines, and if it comes back (as it usually does) send it to others.”  “Do not mind rejection slips,” he counseled.  “I have hundreds of them.” 

Over the next twenty years, Carter corresponded with Hughes, who critiqued her poems and offered advice on where to submit them for publication.  He shared her frustration over editors who were reluctant to accept “race-problem” poetry or fiction, but recommended that she simply keep searching for others who weren’t so squeamish.  Delighted with her poem, “Whispering Leaves,” he asked permission to send copies to the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of African American culture at Yale University, and to New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.  Hughes found poems she shared with him in 1963 to be “strong and dramatic and, I think, would make most effective program pieces to read aloud to audiences.  I suggest you try them out the next time you have occasion to speak in public – or maybe you should create an occasion to do so.”

Lillie Mae Carter

Carter dedicated Black Thoughts “In memory of my critic and friend, Langston Hughes.”  It included the gentle “My Prayer,” which Hughes had praised (May I live from day to day / In an honest, sincere way; / That someone through me may see / What joys come from serving Thee), and a tribute to a former custodian at Toledo’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School (Keeper of the building, goodbye! / Rest well in new buildings on high).  But also found in its pages were the mournful “Half-Still” (Half slave, half free / Half a citizen still / That’s me) and the bitter “America” (America is not red, white and blue / America is lily white – all the way through.)

Lillie Mae (Bland) Carter’s papers are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Special Collections Library.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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John Glenn, 1921-2016

“You couldn’t pay that officer too much attention,” said Bowling Green’s Martha Potter, when Lt. Col. John H. Glenn, Jr., became the third American to go into space (after Alan Shepard and Virgil “Gus” Grissom) and the first to orbit the earth.  One of the original “Mercury Seven” astronauts, Glenn circled the earth three times during his five-hour flight on February 20, 1962.

Project Mercury commemorative stamp (Frank Chelf Collection)

Project Mercury commemorative stamp (Frank Chelf Collection)

Like all Americans, Martha was transfixed, even though numerous delays had postponed the flight.  “I got [up] at five o’clock the first morning [January 27] he was to make his trip,” she wrote her children.  “The TV was working fine and I saw him get in his capsule and was still watching when he came out.”  On the day of the successful launch, she had invited some friends over to play cards, but the group quickly turned to the unfolding event.  Martha “lived at the TV” until late evening and in the days afterward, when Glenn was feted with a ticker-tape parade.

In Washington, Kentucky Congressman Frank Chelf joined the chorus of praise for Glenn.  On February 26, he introduced a bill to award Glenn and his fellow Mercury Seven astronauts the Congressional Medal of Honor plus a bonus of two years’ salary.  A version of his idea became law in 1969, when Congress authorized the Congressional Space Medal of Honor for astronauts who distinguished themselves in the space program.

In recognition of the many contributors to the milestone, Chelf’s bill also provided $5,000 to each of the scientists, engineers and technicians associated with the mission.  Glenn himself was the first to credit the “team effort of many, many thousands of people” behind Project Mercury.  A thank-you letter written on his behalf to Bowling Green native Lillie Mae Carter and her first-grade pupils in Toledo, Ohio put his pioneering feat in perspective: “Many things were learned from this and from the earlier flights of Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom,” it noted.  “Each flight is a stepping-stone in our ever-expanding manned space flight research program.”

Click on the links to access finding aids for these collections featuring the late John Glenn in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives section of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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