Willie Carter would quit a job to box

A chance to fight is what brought him to Minnesota

Willie Carter with Muhammad Ali
Willie Carter with Muhammad Ali

Willie Carter was born October 24, 1943, in Shawnee, OK, 40 miles east of Oklahoma City. His father, Thomas Lee Carter, and his mother, Willie Mae (nee Burrell), were both born and buried in Oklahoma.

His mother died when he was about a year old. “She hemorrhaged to death. Couldn’t go to a hospital back in those days.”

He is the only child of this union. He has two brothers (one sister is deceased) still in Oklahoma. His paternal grandmother and great-grandma raised him, both full-blood Chickasaw, Cree and Cherokee.

Saying, “No, ma’am” came from the manners preached to him as a boy and still practiced. His great-great grandma was born around 1865 while Lincoln was still president. “She died in 1965, about 90 or 100 years old. We couldn’t find no birth certificate even at the town hall where she was born.”

“My first [boxing] fight [was when] I was 11 years old, no training, on the amateur pro card at the Public Market in Oklahoma City. I lost, but I went back. I wanted to win. I needed to train in gyms.

“One day I saw a newspaper article. There was work [to be had] boxing in Oklahoma City, so I went there and my manager let me fight.”

He married at 18, was drafted, and went into the U.S. Army the day after the wedding. He has four children in Oklahoma from that union, one daughter (“Dovie”) and one son (Kemet) here, and 16 grandchildren.

“My family was very religious. I could not resist the draft as Muhammad Ali did. I would’ve probably gone to jail.”

He took basic training in Louisiana and was stationed in Germany, not in Vietnam. On November 22, 1963, when President Kennedy was assassinated, they were ready and poised to go to Vietnam, “waiting on the word” should the assassination have proven to be communist-regime related.

He did not box in the military. “Racism.” His time in Germany with the boxing team was getting short. He was being discharged in’65 and was not going to reenlist.

“The Olympics were in ’64 with Joe Frazier, but I got the experience of boxing with the other guys in the military.” His military discharge came in 1965.

“I wanted to go home, raise a family. Still wasn’t what I thought [conditions in the South] should be, the way we were treated.” He joined the reserves after his initial two-year obligation.

“I came to Minnesota when I was 29 years old in 1972, when I heard about a boxing match up here that I could fight. All I had to do was get up here. My goal, my dream was to go for a better life I couldn’t get down there [in the South. The fight] didn’t happen, but I liked it here. I stayed. I couldn’t take the South. It was the best thing that could’ve ever happened.”

He’s been in St. Paul ever since, 41 years. In St. Paul he fixed truck tires, doing repairs on heavy-weight semi tires for 12 to 14 years.

MSR: Describe how in your view the city has changed over the years with respect to growth and changes in their neighborhood(s) and in the African American community in general. Would you describe the city as better, worse, or the same in terms of being a good place for African Americans to live?

WC: The Oxford playground is new. Selby-Dale was rich with history, businesses, Bessie & Jesse’s’ restaurant. Still got the cleaners. Amateur boxing was here. Opportunities were golden.

CETA, TCRC, all kind of programs [were] here to [help people] succeed, go forward. Some took advantage, some didn’t. Men could get help. Never saw that before. Oklahoma didn’t do that. The Urban League was active, helped you get jobs. Shim Shapiro and Willie Mae Wilson were there in 1972. [There were] jobs for me, but I’d quit a job for a boxing match. Boxing has been good to me.

Inner City Youth [ICY] program is gone. They had drum and boxing programs. Bobby Hickman and Mr. White and Dennis Presley allowed me to come in, let me work with the Golden Gloves boxing program. Hickman didn’t play. You were there to work or get out.

So much going on there in those days. Artists teach[ing] you to draw, education program, too. Change their lives around. This was in the building owned by Mrs. Battle on the northwest corner of Selby at Victoria. Sewing is in there now. ICY moved to the building Stacy Robinson owned at Milton and Selby, with a new group [that] took over.

ICY needed to show what you’ve done to qualify for funding. I worked with M.A.P.S. [Muhammad Ali Professional Sports] and with Don King when they came here to promote boxing. I worked with Golden Gloves with Harry Davis in Minneapolis.

MSR: What advice would you offer young African Americans living in the city for improving their lives and community? What needs to be done to make this a better place for African Americans to live and raise families?

WC: It’s sad to say, but they need to know their history. I blame the school[s] for not teaching what we done. Where would we be without African Americans? Seems like no one knows Benjamin Banneker [surveyed] Washington, D.C. African Americans invented [traffic signals and] the gas mask. [An African American] invented blood plasma [storage and donation]…

Where would we be without thermal refrigeration, open heart surgery? We’ve done so many things, but you don’t see our pictures, you don’t see our names in the history books. We’re never mentioned — Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth — we have rich history.

Black history came first… All life started in Africa. Our kids don’t know this! The schools need to teach this. Everyone should know this. What harm would it do? They’re afraid of what we can do.

Right now my grandson’s school has To Kill a Mockingbird, and they’re using the N-word in there. He’s in sixth grade. He doesn’t know any better, but he came home and told my daughter.

The N-word came from Western men who didn’t know how to pronounce it when we came out of Niger. They mispronounced Niger. The N-word’s been passed on since slavery. They do what they want to do. What are they afraid of?

What would I recommend to this new generation? Get serious. First, get a proper education, do something. Without an education what can you do? There are no jobs here for us out there. Be what you want to be if you get the knowledge, otherwise you’ll end up in jail or in prison. There are [about a] million African Americans locked up.

This generation doesn’t know how to talk, to fill out an application. The school isn’t teaching them. It isn’t teaching Black history, how to plant food. I’m trying to do my part by teaching the young kids. At the Oxford Garden I have a kids’ corner. It’s not about race, it’s about being human.

We need reach-out programs. We need to get back to the ’60s. Kids need to do things, to see things. The ones who’ve made it need to give back the way Dave Winfield does every year. My foundation gives Christmas toys.

As a child I got up early for daily chores, did field work, fed the chickens. There was no running water. You did this every day. Now you can’t get [kids] to take out the trash. I wanted to be a farmer like my uncle when I followed him [as] he plowed with the mule.

“[I] went to Dunbar and Donge schools, never [to] integrated school. In 1952-60, it was all Afro-Americans. I compare Clara Lauper to Martin Luther King [Jr.], a special person who taught Black history.

When Malcolm X was across the street, I did not go shake his hand. Grandma told me he was a bad man. Said no, he’s a bad man. In those days you did what your elders told you. When I was young the elders would say, “Don’t let bad news beat you home” and I didn’t know what that meant.

The elders would switch us for cursing. We shouldn’t curse. No one should. We need to get back to the old ways. We’ve got to stop the bad. High officials make sure [the drugs] get in here.

Don’t give up. Don’t blame. Blame turns to hate and hate turns to cancer. I wear Adrian Peterson’s Viking shirt. He was from Oklahoma City.

The White man has held us down 400 years, but what new can come from blaming the White man? Our country depends on our strength. I never thought I’d see a Black man as president, and they’re doing everything they can to bring him down.

Vote. I vote. We need to use our voice.

Elizabeth Ellis welcomes readers’ responses to ellisea51@hotmail.com.