African American Public Relations Corporation

Exalting a positive image of African Americans

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Mary Carter Smith

Mary Carter Smith, 88; storyteller, teacher, writer
By Jacques Kelly and Frederick N. Rasmussen
Baltimore Sun
April 30, 2007

Mary Carter Smith, a storyteller, folklorist and entertainer who became nationally known as she helped popularize traditional African stories, dress and songs to American audiences and school pupils, has died. She was 88.

Smith, who worked as a schoolteacher and librarian, died of renal failure Tuesday at a Baltimore-area nursing home. Often called the Mother Griot, 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."

Smith was born Mary Rogers Ward in Birmingham, Ala., and grew up in Ohio, West Virginia and Baltimore. She popularized the term "griot," a West African storyteller who recounts the oral history of a village or family.

In a December interview, she told the Baltimore Sun that her first "professional" engagement followed the death of her mother, Eartha Nowden Coleman, who at age 22 was shot to death by Smith's stepfather in New York City. At the time, Smith was 4 years old and living in Youngstown, Ohio, with her grandmother, whom she called "Mama Nowden."

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.

Smith graduated from what was then Coppin Teachers College in Baltimore and was a teacher and librarian in the Baltimore school system for 31 years. At a time when the city's school system did not provide classes on African culture, Smith started wearing African dresses, headpieces, necklaces and bracelets, and once she mortgaged her home so she could spend a summer in Ghana.

In 1969, 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. Smith took a leave of absence in 1971 to become a full-time storyteller and left the city schools in 1973.

She went on to perform at the Smithsonian Institution, the Kennedy Center and in the Caribbean, Europe and Africa, including appearances on Nigerian television.

"Her voice was mesmerizing, exciting and wonderfully received," said storyteller Stanley Bunjo Butler. "She had the ability to meet you where you were, and she could deal with all ethnicities."

Smith also reached audiences through local radio and public television programs and was a co-founder in 1982, with Linda Goss of Philadelphia, of the National Assn. of Black Storytellers, which provides opportunities for African American storytellers to be heard.

In a private life touched by tragedy, she was married three times: The unions with Ulysses J. Carter and Eugene Grove ended in divorce; and her second husband, Elias Raymond Smith, died in 1962 after two years of marriage.

Her only child was murdered. Ricardo Rogers "Ricky" Carter, 29, was stabbed to death in 1978 by a woman in a bar. Living by her religious principles, Smith later befriended the woman and helped her find a job after she was released from prison.

"I realized that I couldn't call myself a Christian and hate the woman who had killed my son. I thought of her mother. I had lost a son, but she had a daughter who had taken somebody's life, and I went to where she lived and talked with her. She was hurting almost as badly as I," Smith told the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper in 1987.

Smith was the author of the books "Heart to Heart," "Town Child," "Vibes" and in 2004 "My Autobiography: A Tale That Is Told." She is survived by several cousins.


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