She has rendered service beyond the call of duty, and she is thus rewarded by Heaven and earth for generations to come…
Millie Ruth McClelland was born July 25, 1923. She was a “Touro baby” delivered at home by the Touro Infirmary Maternity Service which was established in 1922. She explains, even though there was some “status” to being a “Touro Baby”, “colored” families could not use hospital facilities at Touro for some time later, and even then, the accommodations were segregated.
Millie Ruth’s mother, Frankie Little, born and raised in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, was the only child of 12 who was “allowed” to attend college, according to one of her brothers, while the other siblings had to stay home and do farming. After graduating from university, Mama Frankie, moved to New Orleans to teach. She lived with her older sister, Hattie, who had migrated years prior and married Willie Minor. Hattie was a domestic worker and Willie Samuel Minor worked for the Southern Pacific railroad and served as the secretary for the labor union that was headed by A. Phillip Randolph.
Mama Frankie, who was a school teacher, married Rev. William McClelland who was also educated, having received his seminary education in Chicago.
The marriage only lasted a few years. Millie Ruth recalls that her parents divorced when she was 3. She also recalls that her mother was high-spirited; and even in Jim Crow south, would from time to time, voice her objections directly to those who treated her and other ‘coloreds’ unjustly. “Mama was Junior’s godmother. One day we boarded the streetcar, she was holding Junior’s hand, and she sat behind the screen, where ‘coloreds’ were required to sit. The streetcar conductor told her she had to sit in the front of the screen with that boy. He said this because Junior looked white. Mama responded: He’s not white; he’s colored! The streetcar conductor told her to sit in front of the screen with that white boy! Mama stated even more emphatically: He’s not white! He is colored! Come on Junior! — as she grabs the hands of both children and marches off the streetcar furiously. “
Due to kidney issues, Mama Frankie died when Millie Ruth was 8 years old. She recalls that her Aunt Hattie, took her to live with her father and her paternal grandmother, Millie McClelland Blissett (“Nana”). This was a big change for her. She recalled that her Aunt Hattie was fun-loving and “always busy” making ‘home brew’ and giving parties. Aunt Hattie also played the ‘harp’ (i.e. a harmonica) and she and her husband owned a ‘player piano’ (a piano that played itself). The living room would be filled often with people dancing and having a good time. Millie Ruth would get a penny for every bottle of home-brew she capped. But when, Frankie passed, all of this excitement seemed to have come to an abrupt halt when Millie Ruth moved in with her father and grandmother, Nana.
Both were kind of strict, from a child’s point of view. But my mother credits the decision as a good one, because education was highly valued and emphasized. Nana went to night school and took Millie Ruth with her. Nana was also an entrepreneur and learned how to make wigs from having been instructed by Madame C.J. Walker, the first Black woman millionaire. Nana was also a self-taught masseuse.
Given the fact that Millie Ruth was raised by her mother — who was also a school teacher– for the first eight critical years of her life, and the fact that her father and grandmother also reinforced the value of an education, she was 2 years ahead in school, which led to her starting her college education at Dillard University at the age of 15. Some of her fondest memories at Dillard were singing in the Dillard choir under the direction of Dr. Frederick Douglass Hall.
Millie Ruth was still a college student when she learned to play bridge, and joined the LNCs, a bridge club in which she remains an active participant.
She married her husband, Charles Carrol Charles, in November 1950. Charles was one of 10 siblings. Both of Charles’ parents died of heart attacks. And all of his siblings, with exception of about 3 died of heart complications, including him at the age of 30. The new bride, Millie M. Charles, lost her husband in December, 1950, when she was only a few weeks pregnant. She was working in the city welfare department at the time, and continued to work until her delivery. She had to return to work 2 weeks after giving birth. But she got through it with the support of family, and friends.
Taking leave from her job at City Welfare, Children and Family Services Division, she received her masters of social work in or about 1957 from the University of Southern California.
In or about 1965, Dr. Emmett W. Bashful, asked an energetic, passionate 42-year-old Millie M. Charles to start a social work program at Southern University in New Orleans. In its beginnings, it was a department of Social Work. Under the leadership of Millie M. Charles, the department transformed into a fully-accredited school of social work offering baccalaureate and masters level degrees. Dean Charles, retired after having served for approximately 41 years. When she reflects on her years at SUNO, she simply says, “We had some good times.” In fact, even her staff and faculty were family to her.
All of the above is shared to help us to understand how Millie M. Charles got her grit, her tenacity, her fortitude, as well as her passion for good times with friends/family, which has blurred into the same meaning for her daughter, HMK Amen, who grew up having more aunts and cousins than she can count!
Good, fun-loving, supportive friends/family is the reason why we can celebrate 90 years of ‘Mama Millie’s’ presence in this life!
Happy 90th Year, Mama Millie, with more to come! [Written by daughter: HMK Amen, formerly known as Charlene Carol Charles, based on accounts mother has shared through the years.]