Listen to Me Good
The Life Story of an Alabama Midwife
by Margaret Charles Smith and Linda Janet Holmes
1996, The Ohio State University Press
Margaret Charles Smith, a ninety-one-year-old Alabama midwife, has thousands of birthing
stories to tell. Sifting through nearly five decades of providing care for women in rural
Greene County, she relates the tales that capture the life-and-death struggle of the birthing
experience and the traditions, pharmacopeia, and spiritual attitudes that influenced her
practice. She debunks images of the complacent southern "granny” midwife and honors the
determination, talent, and complexity of midwifery.
Fascinating to read, this book is part of the new genre of writing that recognizes the
credibility of midwives who have emerged from their own communities and were educated
through apprenticeship and personal experience.
Past descriptions of southern black midwives have tended to denigrate their work in
comparison with professional established medicine. Believed to be the oldest living
(though retired) traditional African American midwife in Alabama, Smith is one of the few who
can recount old-time birthing ways. Despite claims that midwives contributed to high infant
mortality rates, Smith's story emphasizes midwives' successes in facing medical
challenges and emergencies.
Margaret Charles Smith was educated in rural Alabama, where she acquired a fifth-grade
education by attending school the three months out of the year it was held. She spent most
of her childhood working in the fields. She learned her calling by becoming an apprentice
to an older midwife, and by attending training courses. Her own experience while growing
up of inadequate schooling, sexual abuse, racial discrimination, and sex discrimination, as
well as her adult experiences of marriage and pregnancy, made her sensitive to the
hardships of others. Smith describes her experiences as a midwife, and also her
relationships—both of collaboration and of conflict—with local doctors, nurses, and public
health officials, relationships that were often further complicated by the segregated order of
the Old South.
Although Alabama passed a law in 1976 banning lay (traditional) midwifery, Smith's story
illustrates the historical importance and power of the midwife in southern black communities.
In addition to the general reader, scholars of women's studies, women's health, public
health, black studies, sociology, oral history, and southern history will all find something of
interest and of lasting value in this vivid account of Smith's life.
“Margaret Charles Smith, a 91-year-old midwife, and Linda Janet Holmes, a long-time friend
and historian of Alabama’s midwives, have combined their talents to present a fascinating
and powerful account of the career of Alabama’s oldest living midwife. Born in Greene
County, Alabama, in 1906, Margaret Charles Smith attended nearly 3,000 births between
1949, when she received her midwife permit, and 1981, when she attended her last birth.
During her distinguished midwifery career, she never lost a mother and rarely lost a baby. .
. . In assessing her last days as a midwife, Smith concluded, ‘You could count on
midwives. They took care of everybody, no matter what.' "
—Journal of the American Medical Association
“Smith’s dedication, strong religious faith, and dignity are evident throughout this tribute to a
tradition of self-care and community support. This fascinating oral history will interest
students of the health sciences, women’s studies, and history, as well as general readers.
Highly recommended for all collections.”