Willis McGlascoe Carter was born into slavery in Albemarle County on September 3, 1852. He was the son of Rhoda Carter and Samuel Carter. The Goodloe family, to which he and his mother and siblings belonged, encouraged him to. In an Carter wrote in the 1890s he recalled that at age seven he stood at a school for white children in Jane Lew, in Lewis County (later in ), where he lived for a short time, listening to the students recite their lessons. He acquired books when and where he could to educate himself. Carter’s father died in 1863 while being on Confederate fortifications near . Carter’s mother married again after the Civil War freed Virginia’s enslaved population and in the 1870s bought her own house near Waynesboro.
Carter worked as a laborer at a sawmill, porcelain company, and on a railroad after the war. For a time he attended a school in Craigsville, in Augusta County, on Sundays. In the summer of 1873 and during several later summers he worked as a waiter at resorts in Hampshire County, West Virginia, and once in Rhode Island. In the autumn of 1874 Carter moved to Washington, D.C., to pursue his education. He waited tables at a hotel and joined the Young Men’s Dramatic Association, where he acted in several plays and of which he was vice president and general manager. On September 25, 1878, he entered Wayland Seminary, where he won the prize as best speaker of his class every year and graduated from the normal department in 1881.
Carter spent one more summer as a waiter and then returned to Augusta County where he passed the examination and received certification to teach in the segregatedOn September 13, 1888, Carter married Serena B. Johnson, who conducted a private school in their Staunton home from 1890 to 1895, when she became his assistant at West End School. They had two sons, one of whom died in infancy. After his wife’s death on August 5, 1898, Carter taught at Public School No. 2 in Staunton. During the 1890s Carter wrote a twenty-two page history of his family and description of his education. It is one of the longer and more-detailed accounts of a former Virginia slave written after the Civil War and includes information about his great-grandmother’s birth and enslavement in Africa before the American Revolution (1775–1783). . He taught in the Smoky Row School in Staunton for the 1881–1882 and 1882–1883 terms and was then appointed principal of the West End School where he remained for approximately fifteen years. Carter was president of the Augusta County Teachers’ Association from 1886 to 1888, helped organize summer training institutes for public school teachers during the 1880s and 1890s, and took part in establishing the short-lived Valley Training School that began classes in 1892.
Carter became one of the leading African Americans in Staunton. Following the November 1883 riot in Danville in which several black men died, about a thousand African Americans gathered at Staunton’sto listen to speeches and pass resolutions. One resolution was to appoint a committee of five men, including Carter, to consider emigrating from Virginia to other parts of the country. He was president of the city’s National Memorial Association for commemorating Emancipation Day from 1889 to 1892. In September 1893 he represented the city at a meeting in Roanoke called by African Americans living in the state’s western congressional districts to advance the economic, educational, and political interests of . Two years later he participated in the state commission that developed the exhibition for the African American building at the Cotton States and International Exposition, in Atlanta.
Carter was also the editor and president of the company that published the Southern Tribune, a weekly African American newspaper founded in Staunton in April 1891. The following year he expanded its format to six columns and in the spring of 1893 he changed the name to the Staunton Tribune and increased the number of pages from four to eight. Only one copy (from September 1, 1894) of Carter’s Tribune is known to survive, and it evidently ceased publication about 1896. The paper’s motto was “Justice To All.”
Active in the, Carter appeared on an 1888 list of African American voters in Staunton’s Second Ward. When Republicans in the Tenth Congressional District met to nominate a candidate in September 1892, he was named the convention’s secretary. In March 1896 Carter addressed a meeting of Staunton Republicans, and theRichmond Planet reported on his “grand and noble speech that speaks well for him as a monument for the race.” He was selected as an alternate delegate to the Republican National Convention, which was held in Saint Louis in June 1896. Carter was named the Tenth District chair for the Negro Protective Association of Virginia when it was organized in 1897 to defend and preserve public education and voting rights as well as other political and legal interests of black Virginians. In 1899 the Washington Beedescribed Carter as “one of the best known citizens of Virginia.”
In May 1900 white Virginians voted to hold a convention to rewrite the state constitution and disfranchise African American voters. Carter and other black Republicans met in Charlottesville three months later to discuss how to defend their civil and political rights, which led to the creation of the Negro Industrial and Educational Association of Virginia (also known as the Negro Educational and Industrial Association). In the weeks leading up to the constitutional convention that began in June 1901, the association held meetings around the state and Carter chaired one in Staunton, where he addressed a large crowd. He also signed and helped present the association’s petition to the convention that called for a strong public school system and protection of voting rights.
Suffering from consumption (probably tuberculosis), Carter died at his Staunton home on March 23, 1902, while the constitutional convention was engaged in crafting its disfranchisement provisions. He was buried in Fairview Cemetery in Staunton.