Margaret Charles Smith
Margaret Charles Smith (1906–2004) was an African-American midwife who became known for her extraordinary skill over a long career. Despite working primarily in rural areas with women who were often in poor health, she lost very few of the more than 3000 babies she delivered, and none of the mothers in childbirth. In 1949, she became one of the first official midwives in Green County, Alabama, and she was still practicing in 1976, when the state passed a law outlawing traditional midwifery. In the 1990s, she cowrote a book about her career, Listen to Me Good: The Life Story of an Alabama Midwife, and in 2010 she was inducted into the Alabama Women's Hall of Fame.
3Later life and death
4Honors and legacy
Smith was the only child of Beulah Sanders, who died shortly after her birth in 1906. Her grandparents were local farmers, and she was raised by her grandmother, Margaret Charles, who was a former slave. She attended a rural grammar school in her hometown of Eutaw, Alabama, but the demands of farming sometimes interrupted her schooling, and she left school entirely at 16 when her grandfather died.
At age five, while assisting at the bedside of the wife of a cousin of her future husband, Smith caught the infant when it was born before the midwife arrived at the home.
Smith had three children, the first of whom was born while she was still in her teens. She served as her own midwife for all three deliveries.
In 1943, she married Randoph Smith. They lived on her grandmother's farm, and farming remained Smith's main source of income for her entire life as many of the mothers whose babies she delivered were too poor to pay her very much.
Smith became interested in midwifery in her teens but didn't begin training until her late thirties, with a local midwife named Ella Anderson. In 1949, Greene County issued a permit for Smith to practice midwifery, making her one of the county's first official midwives. In that era, "granny midwives" (as lay African-American midwives like Smith were informallly called) were crucial to the lives of Southern black women because most hospitals would not admit them as patients. During her 35-year career, Smith delivered over 3000 babies to mothers who were often malnourished and in poor health. Despite this, she lost almost none of the babies and none of the mothers in childbirth.During the period in which she practiced (ca. 1945–ca. 1980), infant mortality among African-American women ranged from around 74 to around 22 per thousand babies born, levels that underline how remarkable her own record was.
In 1976, Alabama outlawed traditional midwifery, but Smith was allowed to continue on for awhile due to her experience. She received her last permit to practice midwifery in 1981. (The state later passed laws allowing nurse-midwives to practice in hospitals).
In 1996, Smith cowrote a book about her life, Listen to Me Good: The Life Story of an Alabama Midwife. Her coauthor, Linda Janet Holmes, is a research scientist and board member of the National Black Women's Health Project. One reviewer wrote of this book that it transcended the genre of midwife memoirs by examining "the larger context of class and race relations in a state that was at the epicenter of the Civil Rights struggle." Published by Ohio State University Press, it won the press's Helen Hooven SantmyerPrize.
Later life and death
Smith continued to farm throughout her life until just before her death. Despite health issues (including hypertension and peripheral vascular disease), Smith lived to be 98 years old, dying in 2004.
Honors and legacy
In 1983, Smith was given the keys to Eutaw, the first black American to receive this honor.
In 1985, she was honored by the National Black Women’s Health Project.
In 1997, Smith was the keynote speaker at the New Orleans Rural Health Initiative.
In 2003, she was honored by the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, D.C.
In 2004, she was given a lifetime achievement award at the Black Midwife and Healer’s Conference.
In 2008, a documentary film about Smith's life was released. Entitled Miss Margaret, it was directed by Diana Paul.
In 2010, Smith was inducted into the Alabama Women's Hall of Fame.