Dr. Millie Charles is a community treasure
19th March 2012 · 0 Comments
By L. Kasimu Harris
Millie Charles spent most of her 88 years discovering the world and helping its people. Have job, Charles was willing to travel; be it a country town in Louisiana, a big city in California or even abroad. She learned at every stop, picking up bricks of knowledge that aided in her building of the Southern University at New Orleans School of Social Work Programs. During her tenure as dean, it became one of the most recognized programs in the south.
Her entry into the field of social work was a modest one.
“I was just looking for a job,” Dr. Charles said, “and I found out the state was hiring.” But, her impact has been a major one. She founded the social work program at SUNO and taught for more than 40 years; and was recognized as a pioneer in the field of social work by the National Association of Social Workers.
“I didn’t realize the impact that was happening, I just enjoyed people.”
Her former students have continually made a positive impact on the city and several graduates include Ronald McClain, President/CEO of Family Service of Greater New Orleans; Victor Sims, media commentator on social wellness and owner of Sims Social Services; and Reginald Browhow, Executive Director of Life Changers Resource Center and founder of the New Orleans Fatherhood Consortium.
Charles said while she was teaching, she was learning. She served on the National Board of Social Work Educators. “I was always opening my mouth and got to know people,” she told The Louisiana Weekly. Serving on the board allowed her to travel to other universities and observe their social work programs and she brought the best practices back to SUNO. Charles said the Social Work program was inclusive and benefitted from a strong faculty. “It was the right place at the right time and things open up for you,” Charles said. Initially she taught at the University of New Orleans before the chance to start the social work program at SUNO.
It was a Friday morning and Charles interviewed while eating breakfast and a few times a week she attends an exercise class. Twelve years shy of a century, Charles enjoys life and jokes about death. She periodically calls her friend, Minnie Ray and makes a request. “I want her to sing a medley of Thanksgiving at my funeral,” Charles said.
Charles explained that opportunities were always afforded to her and it wasn’t something she had to scratch for. Her father, a Baptist preacher, raised her to be grateful. Her paternal grandmother constantly sought teaching and learning opportunities for Charles, an only child whose mother died when she was eight. Charles’ memory is as vivid as her life experiences; just don’t ask her for a specific date. “Baby, I’m 88 years old,” she said before laughing a few times.
After graduating from Dillard University with an education degree, she taught in Columbia, a rural town in north Louisiana, for two years—where kids took time off from school to pick cotton. Then she taught in Charleston, South Carolina for two more years. She lived in Japan for a year while working for the Red Cross and planned to move to Europe next. During a break in New Orleans, love altered her plans. Charles met a student from Howard University and soon married. A short time later, Charles told her husband of her pregnancy. He kidded with her: “‘Oh Lord, you’d say anything to not leave New Orleans.” The next day he suffered a heart attack and died.”
“I was the only bread-winner, so I had to pursue an education,” Dr. Charles explained.
For a year, she worked full-time in New Orleans as a social worker and commuted to Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge while pursuing a master’s degree. “For a while, I was the only Black student on campus,” Charles told The Louisiana Weekly. She recalls other universities opening their doors and providing scholarships to Black students, who transferred seeking an opportunity where they could learn in peace.
Then, she moved out west to attend the University of Southern California with her young daughter in tow. They made due with the help of friends and family. She returned to New Orleans after her studies and soon started building the social work program at SUNO.
Dr. Charles never minded relocating, but she was not easily moved. She recalled visiting a segregated Canal Street and standing with her daughter near Kreeger’s Department store and Imperial Shoe store.
“I was minding my own business and a white man came up and started shouting the most disrespectful things to me,” she recalled. Needless to say, she was surprised. Charles caught up with the man and said, “Your maw.” Her friends asked if she couldn’t think of something more clever.
“I guess I’ve always been a fighter,” she said, “and drawn to the things that meant advancement.”
Charles’ life’s work is making social differences. Her tenet for the future generations is simple. “You need to be true to a cause that extends beyond yourself,” Charles said. “Do it for others — that’s the only way we can change this thing for Black people.”
This article was originally published in the March 19, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper