The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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Margaret Carter Oral History Interview

Life history interview conducted by Janice Dilg.

April 18, 2016


Margaret Louise Carter was born in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1935, the eighth of nine children and the youngest girl in her family. A talented singer and speaker as a youth, Carter began participating in oratorical contests at an early age and also sung on a semi-professional level. She began attending school in Shreveport when she was seven, because she was considered too small to start school earlier. Because she was a strong student, however, she wound up skipping a few grades and was finally matched up with students of her own age by the time she had reached the eighth grade. She graduated as salutatorian of her senior class.

From there, Carter enrolled at Grambling State College on a music scholarship. After two and a half years at Grambling, Carter married and dropped out of school. In the years that followed, Carter raised a large family of her own while working, variously, in an ammunition plant, and selling Amway, Avon and Fuller Brush products.

In 1967, Carter escaped what had become a violently abusive relationship by moving to Oregon with her five children. Finding work as a teacher's assistant in the Portland Public Schools, Carter was eventually able to return to college. She began by taking classes at Portland State University, and graduated in 1972 with a bachelor's degree in Education. She then started teaching at Albina Youth Opportunity School, where she met one of the lead professors of Oregon State University's Portland-based master's in counseling program. In spring 1973, she enrolled in the program, and in winter 1974, she completed her master's of education in educational psychology, with a focus on counseling. Her OSU degree in hand, Carter became a counselor at Portland Community College, where she worked for the next twenty-seven years.

In 1983, Carter was approached by a bipartisan group who asked her to run for state office. Carter eventually agreed to do so and, in 1984, she became the first African American woman elected to the Oregon Legislature. She took office the following January and spent almost twenty-eight years serving in either the Oregon House or Senate. During her early years in Salem, Carter passed a bill declaring Martin Luther King Jr. Day to be an official holiday and another requiring the divestiture of holdings in apartheid-governed South Africa. She also pushed a pro-education agenda that included the creation of regional skills-training centers as well as summer programs for kids. A member of the Legislature's joint budget committee, Carter was chosen as chair of the Oregon Democratic Party in 1996.

Carter ended her stint in the House in 1997, having served the full extent of her term limit. In 2000, she won an open seat in the state Senate, and in 2005 she was selected to be Senate President Pro Tempore. The following year, Carter was named Oregon Statesman of the Year by the Oregon Business Association and also served as president of the National Organization of Black Elected Legislative Women. During much of her Senate tenure, Carter was also the CEO of the Urban League of Portland. After the 2009 legislative session ended, Carter left the Senate to become deputy director of Oregon's Department of Human Services. She retired from the department in 2014.

In 2010, Carter was honored by OSU with the Alumni Fellow Award. The following year, Portland Community College named its new technology building after her. In retirement, she has continued to volunteer at Portland Community College and in area skills centers.