Amy Carter playing on the White House grounds with Mary Prince. Credit - National Archives and Records Administration/Wiki Commons
Mary Prince, a Black woman who had been convicted of murder, was already a controversial figure at Jimmy Carter’s 1977 Presidential Inauguration.
Although she was incarcerated, Prince was given permission to travel to Washington, D.C. for the event and arrived in a dress made of material given to her by her fellow inmates at the Fulton County Jail and the Atlanta Work Release Center. At the end of the celebration, Prince remembers newly minted First Lady Rosalynn Carter pulling her aside. "Before I left, Mrs. Carter said, 'How would you like to work in this big old place?'" Prince told People that year.
Rosalynn Carter and Prince had known each other for years at that point, and had developed a close bond. Prince had been young Amy Carter's nanny when the family lived at the Georgia governor's mansion, not long after Prince was accused of—and subsequently sentenced to life for—murder. When the Carters arrived at the White House, most political operatives would have advised the family to keep their distance from Prince. But the first couple did the opposite.
After the inauguration, Prince told Rosalynn that she would indeed be interested in working at the White House. And Rosalynn pulled out all the stops: She secured a reprieve for Prince, helped make President Carter her parole officer and officially hired her to serve as Amy Carter's nanny at the White House.
Rosalynn Carter, who died on Sunday at the age of 96, and her husband remained lifelong friends with Prince, and were both staunchly convinced she was wrongly convicted in the 1970 shooting death of a man outside a bar in Lumpkin, Ga., after an argument involving Prince’s cousin.
“She was totally innocent,” Rosalynn Carter told Kate Anderson Brower for her 2015 book, The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House, bristling at the slightest hint of wrongdoing. “She had nothing to do with it.”
Both Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter earned a reputation for decency over the decades, and their relationship with Prince, who grew up in poverty in Georgia and dropped out of school in the seventh grade to care for her younger sister, gives more credence to their interest in helping the most vulnerable members of society.
The Carters first met Prince in late 1970 when Jimmy Carter was serving as Georgia governor, and Prince applied for a job as part of a program to put prisoners to work. Prince quickly made a positive impression on Rosalynn Carter, who asked the young woman if she would be interested in taking care of a then-3-year-old Amy Carter. It was a match made in heaven: the toddler bonded so much with her new nanny that she reportedly cried every time Prince left.
In his 2006 book, Our Endangered Values, Jimmy Carter wrote about how Prince was unfairly victimized by the criminal justice system because of her race. He noted that Prince only met her court-appointed lawyer on the first day of her trial, and that the lawyer convinced her to plead guilty after incorrectly promising a light sentence instead of the life sentence that was ultimately handed down.
“She was fortunate and could just as easily have been executed,” Carter wrote. “If the victim had been white, we would never have known Mary Prince.” (Prince, who was also known by the name Mary Fitzpatrick before her formal separation from her husband, was eventually pardoned after a reexamination of her case.)
The Carters raised eyebrows with their decision to move Prince into the White House, both from other members of the White House staff, who were skeptical of her innocence, and from the public at large. Saturday Night Live even spoofed the Carters' relationship with Prince, with Sissy Spacek playing a young Amy Carter and Garrett Morris, in drag, as Prince. The cringe-worthy skit includes dialogue that calls Prince’s innocence into question and hints that the Carters hired her for publicity.
After Carter's one term in the White House, Prince moved just a few blocks from the former first couple in Plains, Ga., where she continued to babysit for their grandchildren. President Carter went on to dedicate his 2004 book Sharing Good Times to “Mary Prince, whom we love and cherish.”
Anderson Brower interviewed both Rosalynn Carter and Prince for her book, and told C-SPAN in 2015 that the two women’s bond remained ironclad. "She's still a huge part of the Carter family," she said at the time. "They consier her one of their own, and they just love her."
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