McCarty drew global attention after it was announced in July 1995 that she had established a trust through which, at her death, a portion of her life’s savings would be left to the university to provide scholarships for deserving students in need of financial assistance. The amount was estimated at $150,000, a surprising amount given her menial occupation.
McCarty was born in Wayne County, Mississippi and moved to Hattiesburg as a child.
In the sixth grade, her aunt (who had no children of her own) was hospitalized and later needed homecare, so McCarty quit school, never to return. She later became a washerwoman, like her grandmother, a trade she continued until arthritis forced her to quit in 1994.
McCarty's grandmother died in 1944, her mother in 1964, and her aunt in 1967. McCarty never married or had children.
McCarty died from cancer in 1999.
Even before dropping out of school, McCarty was taught to save money by her mother. She opened her first savings account at First Mississippi National Bank, and over the years opened several other accounts at various area banks, including Trustmark National Bank, which she appointed trustee of her trust and executor of her estate.
McCarty never owned a car; she walked everywhere she went, pushing a shopping cart nearly a mile to get groceries. She rode with friends to attend services at the Friendship Baptist Church. She did not subscribe to any newspaper, considering the expense an extravagance. Similarly, although she owned a black and white television, she only received broadcast transmissions. In 1947, her uncle gave her the house in which she lived until her death. She also received some money from her aunt and mother when they died, which she also placed into savings.
Over time, Trustmark Bank personnel noticed McCarty's accumulated savings, and began to assist her in future estate planning, as well as being unofficial guardians for her. (Bank employees and other friends convinced McCarty to purchase two small window air conditioners for her house and cable television service.)
With the assistance of a local attorney (for whom she had done laundry) and the bank's trust officer, using slips of paper and dimes (to represent 10% shares), McCarty set out the future distribution of her estate. She set aside one dime (10%) for her church, one dime (10%) each for three relatives, and the remaining six dimes (60%) for Southern Miss. She stipulated that the funds should be used for students, preferably those of African-American descent, who could not otherwise attend due to financial hardship. When news of McCarty's plan was made public, local leaders immediately funded an endowment in her honor.
She signed an irrevocable trust, allowing the bank to manage her funds, from which she received a regular check.
In 1998, she was awarded an honorary degree from USM, the first such degree awarded by the university. She received scores of awards and other honors recognizing her unselfish spirit, and President Bill Clinton presented her with a Presidential Citizens Medal, the nation’s second highest civilian award, during a special White House Ceremony. She also won the United Nations' Avicenna Medal for educational commitment. In June 1996, Harvard University awarded McCarty an honorary doctorate alongside Maya Lin, Walter Annenberg, and Judith Jameson.