Smith, Mary Carter 1919–
Mary Carter Smith 1919–
Before the 1970s, few Americans knew the meaning of the word “griot”. Mary Carter Smith helped to change that. Perhaps no other individual has done more to bring traditional African stories, poems and songs to life across the United States. Her contribution to the continuation of African oral tradition in America has been significant. Since the beginning of Smith’s career, interest in African history and heritage has blossomed. She is also the state of Maryland’s official “griot,” or African storyteller.
Mary Carter Smith was born Mary Rogers Ward on February 10, 1919 in Birmingham, Alabama. She and her mother, Eartha Nowden, a domestic worker, lived with Eartha’s mother, Mary Deas Nowden. Smith never developed much of a relationship with her father, Rogers Ward. Eartha Nowden and Rogers Ward eventually divorced. When Mary was four years old, Eartha married Warren Coleman, and Mary was renamed Mary Rogers Coleman. One year later, Warren Coleman died of tuberculosis. Smith’s mother married her third husband, Earl Knight, and the family moved to New York. Tragically, Knight shot Eartha Nowden to death less than a year after they married. Smith was left in the care of her grandmother.
Meanwhile, Smith’s uncles had moved north in search of better jobs. One of them, known as Brother, settled in Youngstown, Ohio, and invited Smith and her grandmother to live with him. While living in Youngstown, Smith became an avid reader and excellent student. When she wasn’t reading, she was telling stories she had created or learned from her grandmother. Throughout most of the 1920s, Smith would visit her aunts during the summer months. In 1927 her uncles moved to New Jersey in search of better jobs, and Smith and her grandmother went to live in West Virginia with Smith’s aunt, Sally Lou Nowden Coleman.
Two years later, Smith’s life would again be touched by tragedy when her grandmother became seriously ill with cancer. In 1932, she succumbed to the disease. By this time Smith was living with another aunt, Willie Nowden McAdory—known inside the family as Aunt Booby—in the West Virginia town of Edwight. In 1934, the McAdorys were run out of Edwight by anti-union goons who were hostile to the labor organizing activities of Aunt Booby’s coal miner husband Norman McAdory. They relocated to Idamay in upstate
At a Glance…
Born Mary Rogers Ward on February 10, 1919, in Birmingham, AL; daughter of Eartha Nowden (a domestic worker) and Rogers Ward; married Ulysses J. Carter, 1946 (divorced 1951); married Elias Raymond Smith, 1960 (widowed 1962); children: Ricardo Rogers Carter (deceased). Education: Coppin Teachers College, BS, 1942.
Career: Teacher and librarian, Baltimore Public Schools, 1942-73; professional storyteller, 1969-, full-time beginning 1973; producer and host, Griot for the Young and Young at Heart radio show, WEAA-FM, 1975-; founded Citizen’s Coalition of Baltimore, 1981.
Awards: Sojourner Truth Award, 1965; Distinguished Alumni Citation, Coppin State College, 1966; Community Service Award, National Council of Jewish Women, 1967; Distinguished Teacher Award, National Council of Negro Women, 1968; Distinguished WomanAward, Delta Theta Sigma Sorority, 1973; National Citation, Phi Delta Kappa, Inc., 1976; namedBalti-more’s Official Griot, 1983; Keeper of the Flame Aware, Maryland Writers’ Council, 1983; Twenty Women of Distinction, African-American Women’s PoliticalCaucus, 1983; Beautiful Black Woman Award, Towson State University, 1985; installed in Baltimore Great Blacks in Wax Museum, 1989; named Maryland’s Official Griot, 1991; named America’s Mother Griot, National Association of Black Storytellers, 1994.
Addresses: Office— PO Box 11484, Baltimore, MD 21239.
West Virginia. One year later, Aunt Booby went blind, and the family moved to Baltimore so that she could receive treatment for her condition. Smith attended her last two years of high school at Baltimore’s Frederick Douglass High. At Douglass, she continued to develop her emerging storytelling skills by participating in the school drama and speech clubs.
After graduating from high school in 1938, Smith enrolled at Coppin Teachers College in Baltimore. In 1942, she earned her elementary education degree from Coppin. She immediately went to work as an elementary school teacher and librarian in Baltimore’s inner-city schools, a career that would last 31 years. In 1946, after a brief courtship, she married Ulysses J. Carter and took the name Mary Coleman Carter. Her only child, Ricardo Rogers Carter, was born two years later. Unlike many teachers of that period, Smith returned to work only a year after the birth of her son. Less than five years into her marriage to Ulysses Carter, the couple divorced. Smith was now a single parent.
Although the Baltimore public schools had a high percentage of African American students, the system did not offer classes on African culture or heritage. Smith sought to change this situation. She began to dress in dashikis and adorned herself in traditional ornamental bracelets and necklaces. She also became a serious collector of traditional African stories, poems, and songs. In addition to teaching her students about their African heritage, Smith became involved in their lives outside of the classroom by providing emotional support to troubled students.
Smith married again in 1960. Her second husband, Elias Raymond Smith, was an old acquaintance from West Virginia whom Smith had dated years earlier. Smith reestablished contact with him when she learned that his first wife had died, and they married a short time later. Less than two years later, Smith suffered yet another tragic loss when Elias Smith died of kidney failure. In 1966, she began publishing poetry that she had written. Her books of poetry include Town Child and Laugh a Little, Cry a Lot.
In 1969, two events changed Smith’s life. She traveled to Ghana, the first of her many trips to Africa, and immersed herself in the native culture. Secondly, she also discovered that she could receive payment for telling stories and reciting poetry in public. Smith contacted an agent, and was quickly hired as an emergency replacement for a poet who had to cancel an appearance in Augusta, Georgia. Her performance was a hit, and marked the beginning of Smith’s career as a professional storyteller.
In 1971, Smith took a leave of absence from teaching to pursue storytelling on a full-time basis. Her popularity as a storyteller increased, and she performed at schools, churches, festivals and other venues. By 1973, it became clear to Smith that she had to decide between careers in teaching or storytelling. After 31 years of teaching in the Baltimore public schools, she left to become a full-time storyteller of traditional African tales.
Soon after leaving the Baltimore school system, Smith became the hostess of a Maryland Public Television show entitled “Black Is.” During the mid-1970s, interest in African culture increased following the publication of Alex Haley’s novel, Roots. In 1977, an award-winning film based on the novel was aired on national television. Smith was introduced to Haley, who told her that she was a “griot,” the traditional word for African storyteller. In fact, Haley began referring to Smith as “my American griot.” In 1975, Smith launched a radio show on WEAA-FM in Baltimore. The name of the show, for which Smith served as creator, producer and host, was Griot for the Young and Young of Heart. The show continued to air throughout the 1990s.
Smith was again burdened by tragedy in 1978 when her only child, Ricardo, was stabbed to death in a Baltimore bar. Rather than letting herself be destroyed by grief, Smith incorporated the emotional impact of losing her son to violence into her art. She often included the story of her son’s death in her presentations.
Smith’s popularity and acclaim continued to grow during the 1980s. She became an activist, founding the Citizen’s Coalition of Baltimore in 1981, and spearheading the movement to observe Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. In 1983, Smith was named as “Baltimore’s Official Griot.” That same year, she co-founded the National Association of Black Storytellers with fellow storyteller Linda Goss. In 1989, Baltimore’s Great Blacks in Wax Museum immortalized Smith in wax. Two years later, Smith became the state of Maryland’s official griot. In 1994, she was named “America’s Mother Griot” by the National Association of Black Storytellers.
In 1998, Smith was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame. Her influence, however, has reached far beyond the borders of Maryland. During the summer of 1999, she traveled to Ghana for the first international conference on storytelling. Smith has crossed both geographical and generational barriers. Through her work with children, a new generation of griots has been created. Smith’s efforts will ensure that future generations can enjoy the beauty of traditional African stories, songs, and poems.
Opinionated, Beacon Press, 1966.
Laugh a Little, Cry a Lot, Young Publications, 1967.
A Few Words, Aframa Agency, 1971.
Vibes, Nordika Publications, 1974.
(with Alice McGill and Elmira Washington) The Griots’ Cookbook: Rare and Well-Done, C.H. Fairfax, 1985.
Beckles, Frances N., 20 Black Women, Gateway Press, 1978.
Hajdusiewicz, Babs Bell, Mary Carter Smith, African-American Storyteller, Enslow, 1995.
Baltimore Business Journal, December 27, 1991, p. 1.
Baltimore Sun, October 10, 1994, p. IB; December 29, 1995, p. IE; July 11, 1999, p. 2B.
Washington Post, April 20, 1989, p. Ml.
—Robert R. Jacobson
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