Former midwife to be honored for community service by county commission

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By Alice Du Pont

Back in 1959, most people delivered babies at home. The only time a woman went to the hospital was when complications were expected. Otherwise, they had children at home surrounded by family and friends and the trusted community midwife.

Sometimes, laughed former midwife Eliza Smith as she sat in her Dodger Ball Park Road home recalling the nearly 30 years she delivered babies in Florida, Georgia and Alabama, there were so many people in the house she had to insist they go into the yard.

Smith seemed to have been thrown into the midwifery profession. Her mother-in-law, Amanda Brown Smith, was a midwife and when Eliza met and married her son, John B. Smith Sr., it seemed like the thing to do. Shortly after her marriage she began accompanying her mother-in-law to deliver babies. She became an apprentice midwife and under the guidance of Smith and another midwife, Ethel Bryant, she learned the ropes. There were other Gadsden County midwives like Jenny Zeigler and Rebecca McMillian who helped Smith with her skills.

She delivered her first child, a girl, on April 13, 1959. Since that time Smith guessed that she has delivered close to 4,000 children, and the overwhelming majority were healthy and thrived.

"I delivered a lot of babies around here, black and white. I think I delivered four sets of twins, one for the Bouies and another for the Johnsons and some others I can't remember right now," she said.

But if she had to recall, Smith could look into her files and retrieve the vital statistics on each child she delivered. State law required that she and other midwives  record the name of the parents, state and time of birth, and the child's name, race and the condition of the baby at birth. The midwife kept a copy and a copy was given to the health department.

"If I ran into problems, Dr. George Massey and Dr. Sterling Wilhoit would always come.  I believe I used Dr. Levy about three times. But most of the woman I knew before they were ready to deliver and I had seen them several times. If the doctor was called he got $10 and I had to pay that. Otherwise, the payment was $25. We got a raise up to $50 before I retired. Sometimes we didn't get that. There were times I ended up having to feed them or give them money," she said.

"I thank the Lord I never lost a mother or a child in all those years," Smith said.

As many good memories as she has throughout her 87 years, Smith will be the first to tell you that her life has not been a crystal stairway.

"I was never the type of person who could come home and just sit down. I worked hard. I worked full-time as a psychiatric aide at Florida State Hospital up until 1981. I couldn't sit down when I came home at 7 a. m. I helped my husband with the farm. We grew shade tobacco, corn, sweet potatoes, string beans and all kinds of crops. Somewhere along the way I became an evangelist and later an ordained minister," she said.

Smith and her husband had four children, three girls and a boy. One daughter, Dorothy, who lives with her mother, said when they were young and working on the family farm the work seemed extremely hard to them. The rows were so long they appeared to curve, according to Dorothy.

Still, she said, no matter what time of day or night, when someone needed the help of her mother, she never hesitated.

"A lot of times she would take us with her. We waited in the car until she was finished. Sometimes people would come to our home to deliver. We had a back room especially set up for that. Sometimes the women would stay 2 or 3 days before they went back home," Dorothy said.

"If they stayed here I had to feed them at no charge. That was just the way it was," she said.

Smith doesn't regret a minute of her life. She smiles when people she barely knows approach her and call her Granny. Others will ask her if she remembers delivering a baby for a particular woman.

"I tell them I remember the woman and they tell me they're that baby. One Sunday we were at a small church in Georgia and four people stood up and said I delivered them. It makes me feel good," She said.

Smith will be honored for her contributions to Gadsden County by the Board of County Commissioners during the Jan. 19, 2010 meeting.  

Commissioner Doug Croley, who initiated the honor, called Smith one of the "most deserving people in Gadsden County."    

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