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If one place can be an archetype for a region, Greene County, Alabama, surely should qualify. This rural county in southwest Alabama, in which the county seat, Eutaw, looks like a crumbling movie-set version of a southern town, exemplifies the historical problems of race and class in the deep South. Historically a cotton plantation area whose minority white residents were made wealthy by the agricultural labor of the African-American majority, Greene County has lately been featured prominently in the national news as one of the major sites of black church burnings. Access to health care, particularly for mothers and children, has always been an issue for the residents of this poorest county in one of the poorest states in the country—but like many southern communities, the people of Greene County figured out ways to cope with, and sometimes even to triumph over, the indignities of poverty and racism. Indeed, midwives, who delivered a significant amount of maternal and other health care in places like Greene County, have become celebrated figures among feminist historians as well as in their own communities.
Listen to Me Good goes beyond the growing genre of books that celebrate southern African-American midwives: it incorporates the story of midwifery practice into the larger context of class and race relations in a state that was at the epicenter of the Civil Rights struggle in the twentieth century. Part of the success of this book derives from the perspective of its authors. Summoned by white [End Page 159] families, who called her “Margaret,” and by African-American families, who called her “Mrs. Smith,” Margaret Charles Smith, probably the oldest living midwife in Alabama, practiced in Greene County from the mid-1930s until 1981, delivering nearly 3,000 babies without losing a mother. Linda Janet Holmes is a research scientist for the New Jersey Department of Public Health and a board member of the National Black Women’s Health Project. Prior to this book, she was known widely for her 1981 oral history project, funded through the National Endowment for the Humanities, which collected the life stories of sixty Alabama midwives. Thus, this is a book that eschews the midwife as a romantic or even exotic figure, as portrayed by some authors. Mrs. Smith grew up in grinding poverty, had her first baby as a young teenager, and spent her adult life hoeing and chopping cotton under the relentless Alabama sun when she was not delivering babies. Her story makes clear that she does not see midwifery as part of a mythic folk past. Instead, she cared for black mothers who were refused care by white physicians and white hospitals—experiences that are related in sometimes harrowing accounts. One such account is about a woman who was having eclamptic seizures, whom the white physician in town refused to treat. The only alternative was to transport her from Eutaw to the black hospital in Tuskegee, a very long drive over a winding two-lane highway. While a white nurse drove the car, the baby was born in Mrs. Smith’s lap as the car passed through Montgomery, and because the placenta would not detach, the mother continued to bleed quite profusely. When they arrived in Tuskegee, the mother and baby mercifully still alive, the nurse scolded Mrs. Smith about her appearance.
The advent of the Civil Rights movement brought conflict to places like Greene County. Martin Luther King made a speech attended by Mrs. Smith in Eutaw, but local whites actively fought desegregation with guns and fists. Economic intimidation worked too—black activists faced eviction from their homes located on white owners’ plantations. Federal dollars, however, began to come to Greene County for health care, and during this period Mrs. Smith was employed by a local health clinic: the Tishibe clinic, housed in a log cabin used formerly by hunters (pictured in the book, it is a rude shack), which provided prenatal...