When asked to address the Northside High School Honor Society recently, Charolette Tidwell relied on one of her favorite essays to convey her message – “Everything I Know I Learned in Kindergarten.”
To Charolette, “This is my raising in totality.” And she remains driven by simply doing the right thing, “to me, that is what being a human being was about. Do onto others…” she says. According to Charolette, the “framing of children” determines the quality of the adult.
It was her immediate community who put the Golden Rule into practice. “It’s as simple as Home, Church, and School,” she says.
Born in the middle of 10 children at Fort Smith’s Mid-Cities “Black” Hospital on Midland Boulevard, Charolette was raised in a two-bedroom home on North 34th Street. “My mother was a domestic and Daddy was the chef that made the Old South restaurant famous. Both my parents were valedictorians of their high school classes and were very intelligent,” she boasts. “But we were very poor. We didn’t have an inside toilet and we didn’t have a bathtub,” she recalls. Instead, there was an outhouse and a pecking order taking turns in the #3 silver tub, with the little ones always getting to bathed first.
Compared to her older siblings, Charolette thought she had more of an easy ride. “They had more household and childcare responsibilities, but everyone had chores to do,” she explains. “The chickens, the big ole garden and helping clean at the schools — these were all givens. But I didn’t like, and I never wanted to learn, how to cook.” Her mother made all their clothes and did each child’s hair. “There was a way we had to look to go out of the house. It was important to her.”
“We weren’t raised on ballfields so I really didn’t do outside,” Charolette explains. “I was a mouse. I was so quiet. I wanted to go unnoticed. We would come home from school and sit chaperoned at the dining room table and do our homework. By choice, I would read late into the night by lamp.”
Charolette considers herself a poetic person and a lover of history. “I constantly looked outside of the community I lived in. I didn’t read fiction. I read about people like Gandhi, Kennedy, MLK, and Mother Teresa. Those who rose above insurmountable challenges in spite of obstacles, to make real change. I wanted to know what was inside of them to surmount those obstacles.”
Teachers were her idols. She fondly recalls how each personally gave of themselves. “They were always challenging us towards excellence. All my classmates felt it. Not everyone was at the same level academically, but every child achieved. So much depends upon an environment that challenges you to look outside of yourself and to be your best self.”
Charolette feels she had that and proudly proclaims, “Excellence was always the mantra of the day. I never saw a teacher who was not engaged and did not extend that engagement to the child’s family.”
Charolette believes that education is the window to success. “It was my grades that got me noticed. It was explained to each of us, not because we were poor, but because of the difference in our skin color, that we each had to reach. The color of our skin meant that we not only had to be achievers, we also had to be outperformers.” Charolette also intuitively knew that any mistakes would similarly be weighed heavier.
“I’ll never forget there was a little ice cream shop about a block away. We hardly ever had any money and I really don’t know why I had a nickel that day, but I do remember really wanting an ice cream. I was about eleven or twelve, and I excitedly went up to the window. As I was digging deep into my pocket for that nickel, the man at the window said to me, ‘Nigger, get away from here!’ As an elementary school child, I simply could not process what had happened as it was the only time I remember being called something negative. I had never heard that word at home, school or church, but I knew that that word stung hard.”
Charolette attributes her own resolve in moving forward. “No. I’m not a Nigger,” she said to herself and she somehow knew that education was the format that would allow her to escape from that ice cream window. Charolette recalls, “I am instinctively sensitive to that animosity to this day and it was that singular moment that set that into place. If I didn’t have the community that surrounded me, that might have affected me. Instead, it propelled me.”
Her family moved to Kansas City when she was in the 11th grade. She stayed behind to care for her grandparents and to finish her high school education at Lincoln High School. “I wanted to graduate wearing a cap and gown and I wanted a class ring, so I took a job cleaning a very large house. I had to walk 20 blocks to the house. My job was to clean the floors, the baseboards, the massive mahogany stairway, and wood furniture and I was only given a rag to do it. I was paid mere pennies to do it. I remember the same lunch I was served each time — a bowl of lima beans and a glass of tepid tap water. I also remember making up my mind that this was not going to be me.”
That summer, she was awarded a scholarship to study geometry, trigonometry, and science at Norfolk State in Virginia. “I was given a stipend for food that I pinned to my bra. I would eat two or three Vienna sausages and a few bites of pork and beans. The other kids would often go out to eat hamburgers and I wanted one so badly, but I stuck with my sausages and beans. But do you know what? I came home with most of that stipend and I was able to buy that ring without having to go back and clean that house. Maybe that’s why I can joke a dime to this day!”
Charolette says that she does not allow people to tell her what to do or achieve. “I don’t see stumbling blocks. I ask myself, ‘How can I get this done? I always consult my higher power. I am a prayerful person and I always pray first. ‘Lord, this is worthy.’”
Charolette believes she was born to be a nurse. “My mother wanted to be a nurse, but the times would not permit it. Instead, she would do whatever she could for anyone in the community who was sick. I would cry if she wouldn’t take me with her.” Inspired by the nuns calling to a life of service, her initial dream was to be a nurse in the Peace Corps.
After graduating from Lincoln High School, Charolette spent one year in nursing school before getting married. The nursing program would not allow married women at that time. She says it was only by the threat of a lawsuit by Dr. H. P. McDonald that she was able to return to get her degree. She credits Marvin Altman. Michael Helm and the positive references of several doctors who propelled her career forward.
Charolette’s career path took her into the Intensive Care Unit, where she rose to Head Nurse, followed a few years later to become the Director of Medical Units. David Banks at Beverly Enterprises eventually persuaded Charolette to take on the role of Director of Education to develop a health and wellness program for them. She is proud of the fact that each promotion that came her way came to her by reference and referral. She never applied for a single position. “Your work should get you noticed,” she explains.
During all this time, Charolette remained committed to her educational pursuits. In addition to her nursing degree, she also earned a Bachelor of Applied Sciences degree from the University of the Ozarks, a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree from Arkansas Tech University and a Master of Education degree from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. She did all of that while being a wife, mother of two children employed full-time. She retired 19 years ago to begin her food assistance legacy at Antioch for Youth and Family.
Years later, Ms. Tidwell was given the distinction of Outstanding Alumni in Health and Human Services by the University of Arkansas in 2015. That same year she was chosen to give invited testimony to the bipartisan National Commission on Hunger. Charolette was profiled in a “Making a Difference” segment on NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt. In 2016, Governor Hutchinson presented her the state’s 2016 Human Services Award. Following a nationwide search, L’Oreal Paris honored Charolette as one of ten Women of Worth honorees in 2017. This past year, the Arkansas Democratic Black Caucus presented her their highest honor, the President’s Award, and she was named the Times Record’s very first “Best of the Best” Citizen of the Year Award. Feature stories about her charitable work at Antioch have appeared in The Huffington Post, Reader’s Digest, Woman’s Day, People Magazine and Nurse.com.
Charolette says what gets her most excited these days is the transformation in new volunteers as they evolve and eventually say, “Ms. Tidwell, this made me feel good today.” What gives her the most pause is knowing that there is no voice for so many people. “today, there are not enough mentors to help lift others up.” Charolette says it’s as simple as humanity, “You know, the golden rule.”