Bessie Lillian Gordy was born August 15, 1898 to James and Mary Ida Gordy in Richland, Georgia, a town a few miles west of Plains. She was the daughter of a postmaster and a homemaker, and grew up in the rural south where color and race were defining characteristics. She knew at an early age that she wanted to be a nurse and she studied at the Wise Sanitarium in Plains, and finished her education at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia in 1923.
After her graduation, Lillian married James Earl Carter, a local businessman from Pains, and raised four children while working as a nurse part time in her community and at the local hospital. She also worked with her husband at Carter’s Warehouse, which specialized in the buying and selling of peanuts and cotton. She used her nursing skills to help her husband’s employees and tended both black and white neighbors who needed medical care. She didn’t see “color” but rather saw humanity, and refused to allow race to be a determining factor in how she treated people.
Lillian’s husband died in 1953. She served as the housemother for the Kappa Alpha fraternity at Auburn University from 1955-1962 and she helped run a nursing home in Blakely, Georgia, but in 1966 she made a major decision. At the age of 68, when many people were retiring from hard work, Lillian joined the Peace Corps and went to Godrej Colony in India, 30 miles from Mumbai. There she nursed in a small clinic treating all illnesses, including leprosy. She turned 70 there before returning home.
Lillian was a busy and important part of her son Jimmy’s political campaigns for state senate, governor and in 1976, President of The United States. She published two books during his presidency, one a collection of letters that she had written her family from India. Her later years were spent at her home outside Plains visiting with family and fishing. When she died at the age of 85 in 1983 in Americus and was buried beside her husband at Lebanon Church Cemetery, more than a city or state grieved. People all over the world who had come under her influence mourned.
Lillian Carter has received many honors for her work during her life. In 1977 she received the Covenant of Peace Award from the Jewish Synagogue Council of America. In 1978 she was awarded the United Nations’ Ceres Medal for being one of the first proponents of civil rights in her community.
In 1980, she was named honorary chair of the Peace Corps National Advisory Council, and in 1986 the Atlanta Regional Office of the Peace Corp created the Lillian Carter Award, given every other year to volunteers over the age of 50 who demonstrate commitment to improving the lives of others.
Emory University established the Lillian Carter Center for International Nursing in 2001, in honor of the work she did in India, reflecting the mission “to improve the health of vulnerable people worldwide, through nursing, education, research, practice and policy.”
The mother of a president and a formidable leader in her own right, Lillian Gordy Carter set an example for all women with her determination to make the world a better place. Whether it was by serving as a nurse in the Peace Corps in India, or bridging cultural gaps in rural Georgia, her nursing skills and her compassion endeared her to many.