For this Mississippi woman, the word ‘can’t’ isn’t in her vocabulary
Janice Carr not only listened to her mother’s advice growing up, she lives it.
“She would say, ‘Don’t ever say you can’t. How do you know you can’t if you don’t try? Nothing hurt a try but a failure. How would you know you failed if you don’t try?’” Carr said.
Born in West Point in 1954 to Charlie Edward and Ethel Maude Carr, she was the youngest of seven children. She attended West Point High School and graduated in 1971.
In 1967, Carr became one of the first African American students to integrate to the white public schools in West Point.
“Although knowing the danger that lied ahead for me and the family, my father knew it had to be done,” Carr said of her father’s courage to sign the form that allowed his daughter to attend the public school. “He lost his job at the Potera Brothers Turkey Farm because I went to the ‘white’ school. My father had to sit up night after night at our front window to protect our home from the Klan.
Carr attended Jackson State University where she graduated in 1974 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and history.
In 1976, she left Mississippi and moved to San Diego, California for five years and then lived in San Jose, California for 20 years. While on the west coast, she met and married Emmett Washington and worked in the Information Technology Department for GTE Government Systems – now Verizon. She had two sons, Justin and Jarriel who have given her three grandchildren.
She attended law school at night until she earned her law degree.
However, after 20-plus years away, Mississippi was calling her home.
“I still had a heart for Mississippi and always felt I owed Mississippi something and Mississippi owed me,” she said.
She moved back to Mississippi in 2000, back to West Point. When she returned home, she spent time walking and driving around West Point, reminiscing.
She went to her old schools and stood at the place where the public swimming pool was while she was growing up – a place she wasn’t allowed to go because of the color of her skin. She drove through the old neighborhoods where she and her sisters sold vegetables to the white residents.
“We were told to go the back door,” she said.
She settled back into West Point for two years while she renovated her family home. She helped older widows with their yard work and provided transportation when needed. She visited with the elderly and spend time raising funds for the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life.
She moved to Abbeville in 2002 after watching The Oprah Winfrey Show one afternoon.
“She said Oxford, Mississippi was the fourth best place in the country to retire,” Carr said. “That summer I came to Oxford and was blown away by its beauty. I didn’t know Mississippi had hills.”
She got a job working at the University of Mississippi in the IT department.
Settling in Abbeville, thanks to her friend and real estate agent, the late Cheryl Anderson, it wasn’t long before she started working to make Lafayette County her home.
She ran for Justice Court Judge and for the District 3 County Supervisor Seat. She joined the Amos Network, which built a park in the Western Hill area. In 2007, she and several others started working on renovating the former Abbeville School into what is today — the Gordon Community and Cultural Center.
“It was worth renovating because it was well built and there is history behind it,” she said. “It was built because the white leaders, government officials and ordinary white citizens in Lafayette County did not want black children attending school with their children. The federal government had mandated the integration of the public schools in the South. In their minds, if there was a decent place for back students then they wouldn’t have to integrate. The building was partially funded by the black community during a time when funds were not readily available. But through hard work and wanting a better and safer place for their children to attend school, they made the necessary sacrifices to make it happen. I wanted to continue honoring those people and not take their efforts in vain – to use the buildings for their original purpose.”
A seven-member board of directors manages the center, which received its nonprofit status in 2009. In 2014, the doors opened again after being closed for more than 40 years for the first Abbeville School Educational Summer Enrichment Camp, which is now in its fifth year. Carr and the board are now working on renovating the second building to be a trade school.
When she isn’t trying to make her community a better place for all, she is working on being the best she can be, both spiritually and physically. She has a goal to attend every church in Oxford at least once. In 1979, she started running and has participated in more than 100 races, including 13 marathons. She’s climbed Half Dome at Yosemite National Park twice; climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa in 2010, reaching the highest summit – Uhuru Peak.
“To be on the continent of Africa where my ancestors were forced away centuries ago was a feeling I could never put into words,” she said.
Carr said her next adventures include visiting Switzerland to see a friend and climb the Alps. She hopes to climb Mount Kenya in Africa and Mount Whitney in California. She’s more recently taken up raising chickens and goats on her property in Abbeville.
“My family calls me a ‘wannabe farmer,’ then I tell them I’m going to raise cotton too,” she said. “Then I’m the ‘crazy wannabe farmer.’” But, nothing hurt a try but a failure – I’ll never know if I would fail if I don’t try.”