Keynote: Indiana congresswoman Julia Carson was the keynote speaker at the YWCA Women's Equality Day luncheon Aug. 24, 2005.

Congresswoman Julia Carson, who spoke at least twice in Terre Haute in recent years, is being remembered as a role model who championed the rights of children, women and the poor.

The Democratic congresswoman from Indiana died Saturday at age 69 after a battle with lung cancer. She was the first black and first woman to represent Indianapolis in Congress.

She had attended St. Mary-of-the-Woods College and spoke in Terre Haute at least twice in recent years, including the Women’s Equality Day luncheon in August 2005.

“She did so much for the people of this state,” said Theressa Bynum, president of the Greater Terre Haute Branch of the NAACP. “She loved to serve people.”

While in Congress, Carson focused her attention on children’s issues, women’s rights, affordable housing and efforts to reduce homelessness. She was a staunch opponent of the war in Iraq.

Earlier this year, Carson was honored during Human Rights Day at Indiana State University as an “Indiana National Treasure,” Bynum said.

“She was a wonderful role model” who was always concerned about others, Bynum said. “It was a blessing to know her and to have been around her.”

Muriel Ryan, also active with the Terre Haute NAACP, met Carson at a Human Rights Day conference in Terre Haute and also through Ryan’s work on hate crimes legislation.

Carson “served as a role model for all women, both in her leadership and her passion for doing that which was right and better for all,” Ryan said.

“She was a very courageous and gutsy lady — way ahead of her time in many ways,” Ryan said. “It’s truly a loss to see her no longer with us.”

Now, it’s up to others to pick up where Carson left off in championing the rights of children, women and the poor, Ryan said.

Marlena Johnson-Hill, education chairwoman for the state NAACP, remembers Carson speaking at a Terre Haute NAACP Freedom Fund banquet a several years ago.

“She was so real and down-to-earth,” Johnson-Hill said. Whether a person was wealthy or poor, “She could speak to you on your level. You felt like you could be her next-door neighbor.”

Carson faced challenges growing up, but she didn’t let those obstacles stop her from reaching her goals, Johnson-Hill said.

“Her message was always positive,” Johnson-Hill said. She was a role model for everyone — male or female.

“When I heard her speak, she was very encouraging. She made me feel good,” Johnson-Hill said.

Carson began serving Congress in 1996, representing the 10th District, which was reconfigured after the 2000 Census to become part of the new 7th District.

At the 2005 luncheon, which was co-sponsored by the YWCA and the League of Women Voters, Carson weighed in on topics as grave as the Iraq War and as personal as the abiding grief she felt for her deceased mother.

Carson’s mother, Velma Porter, was an unmarried teenager when she moved to Indianapolis from Louisville, Ky., with her 1-year-old baby, Julia. Porter put a roof over her daughter’s head and food on the table by cleaning other people’s homes.

“She died 10 years ago; it feels like 10 minutes,” Carson said in 2005.

Velma had high hopes for Julia at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College but it was not to be. Julia dropped out and eventually married in 1955. She had two children, got divorced and became a single working mom.

Carson found her way into politics as a legislative assistant to longtime Congressman Andrew Jacobs. She won her first election in 1972 with a seat in the Indiana House of Representatives, where she spent two terms.

In 1976, she was elected to the state Senate and stayed there until 1990. She was elected to Congress in 1996.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at (812) 231-4235 or sue.loughlin@tribstar.com.

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