Griot brought African tales to Americans

Baltimore teacher went on to perform around world

Mary Carter Smith 1919-2007

April 26, 2007|By Jacques Kelly and Frederick N. Rasmussen | Jacques Kelly and Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN REPORTERS

To storyteller Mary Carter Smith, there was a oneness of all races. "We are one family," she often told her audiences, "and a family has a good time when we come together."

Called a folklorist, entertainer and the Mother Griot, the former Baltimore schoolteacher and librarian became nationally known as she helped popularize traditional African stories, dress and songs to American audiences and students after visiting Ghana nearly 40 years ago.

Ms. Smith, who was 88, died of renal failure Tuesday at the Genesis Eldercare Cromwell nursing home in Towson. A resident of Northeast Baltimore's Wilson Park section, she had been in declining health since suffering a heart attack in January.

"She was the grande dame of storytelling," said Jimmy Neil Smith, founder of the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tenn. "She was a legend in our world and a precious human being who gave and gave and gave."

Ms. Smith, who popularized griot as a term for storytelling and performing folklorists, was born Mary Rogers Ward in Birmingham, Ala., and grew up in Ohio, West Virginia and Baltimore.

In a December interview, she told The Sun that her first "professional" engagement followed the death of her mother, Eartha Nowden Coleman, who at age 22 was shot to death by Ms. Smith's stepfather in New York City.

At the time, she was 4 years old and living with her grandmother, whom she called "Mama Nowden," in Youngstown, Ohio. She didn't quite understand what had happened and why her mother had returned lying lifeless in a coffin.

"People kept patting my head and saying, `You poor little thing' and pressing money into my hand," she said. "After the funeral, I went down to the corner and told a story of what happened to my mother, and people felt sorry and gave me money.

"Then Mama heard what I was doing and came down, spanked me and took me right home, and told me never to do that again," she said.

Her grandmother died in 1932, and Ms. Smith came under the care of an aunt. She moved to Baltimore in 1935, when the aunt lost her sight and was being treated for blindness at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She graduated from Frederick Douglass High School in 1938 and four years later from what was then Coppin Teachers College - supporting herself with a night job at the Social Security Administration.

In a brief autobiography, Ms. Smith wrote that she and a friend were "the first Blacks allowed to work as typists" at Social Security's old Candler Building headquarters on Pratt Street.

She was a teacher and librarian in the Baltimore school system for 31 years. "By choice I worked only in the inner city," she wrote.

At a time when the city school system had no classes on African culture, Ms. Smith began wearing African dresses, headpieces and jewelry, and once she mortgaged her home so she could spend a summer in Ghana.

"She began wearing African attire 50 or 60 years ago, long before it became popular," a cousin, Joan S. Stevenson of Baltimore, said yesterday. "She was petite and chic. And from this petite little lady came this great strong voice reciting her poems and telling stories of Africa, the motherland."

In 1969, Ms. Smith attended a poetry reading by actress Joanna Featherstone at what is now Morgan State University. She learned that performers were paid and asked Featherstone's agent if she could get work - and be paid. Ms. Smith soon received a chance - as a stand-in for Featherstone in Augusta, Ga. - and the pay helped underwrite her Africa travel expenses.

Ms. Smith took a leave of absence in 1971 to take up professional storytelling full time and left the city schools in 1973.

"She wanted to devote her life to telling stories and for children to let them know that they were as beautiful as any other race or creed in the world," Mrs. Stevenson said.

She appeared at numerous Baltimore schools and libraries and went on to perform at the Smithsonian Institution, the Kennedy Center and in the Caribbean, Europe and Africa, including on Nigerian television.

"Her voice was mesmerizing, exciting and wonderfully received," said Stanley Bunjo Butler, manager of the Enoch Pratt Free Library's Walbrook branch and also a storyteller. "She had the ability to meet you where you were, and she could deal with all ethnicities."

Ms. Smith also reached audiences through a Sunday morning radio program, Griot for the Young and Young at Heart, on Morgan's WEAA-FM, where a studio was named in her honor. She performed on WHUR-FM, Howard University's radio station, and on the early 1970s Maryland Public Television program Black Is.

"Using voice, facial expression, and gesture along with song and dance, Ms. Smith spins her folk tales," a 1982 Sun profile read. "Ms. Smith appears to be driven by a multitude of concerns, not only to please and entertain the crowd in the best show-biz tradition but to uplift, to instruct, to span the barriers between peoples."

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