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Sunday, July 08, 2007

George Stoney "Delivers" Miss Mary Coley

I get tongue-tied whenever I'm around somebody famous, and my lips lock into a frozen smile. One time I sat on a bench next to Jerry Garcia for five minutes without coaxing any words into the light of day.

Filmmaker, George Stoney, is considered to be the "father" of community access TV in the States, the field in which I've worked most of my adult life. After working on a civic-film project in Canada, he procured a grant to incubate public access media centers here in the states. I'd see him at the annual community media conferences but could never think of an intelligent conversation-starter. In 1992, he made some opening remarks at the conference and told attendees to read an article I'd written. I was shocked when he referred to my last name and my inner voice burst into the Hallelujah chorus. A couple of times in subsequent years we spoke on panels together.

Then in early 2003 he called me from his office at New York University in lower Manhattan and asked if I knew a man by the name of Coley in Palo Alto. It so happened that I did and that we had crossed paths in a couple of civic organizations. Bernard Coley had been leaving some messages for George and George had not yet replied. I called Bernard and found out that he had been surfing the internet for information on his grandmother and had come across a listing of a movie George had made about her back in 1952. Nobody in his extended family had seen it.

George had been commissioned by the State of Georgia Health Department to make a training film for rural midwives. They were poor Black women who got their training in the apprentice-tradition of folk medicine. The Health Department expected the kind of educational health film we used to sit through in school, where the clicking sound of the projector was more interesting than the monotonous narration and sterile diagrams.

George started his media career doing radio interviews with farmworkers in the field and instinctually knew that the best information resides in the experiences of people. George had found out that Miss Mary Coley was the most accomplished midwife in Dougherty County and he gained her permission to shadow her for four months. After that he filmed some re-enactments of what he'd witnessed, creating a cross between an educational program and a docudrama. In 2002, it was one of twenty-five films chosen for preservation in the Library of Congress. In its 55 year lifetime it has been used as a tool for training midwives in numerous other states and in many countries. It has also been shown in many college classrooms as an example of early documentary style. (The former head of Stanford's School of Communications told me that he showed it regularly to his classes.)

Last week, "All My Babies" came out on DVD (and is available on Netflicks). It includes a wonderful commentary by George who - at 91 years old - has a razor sharp memory when he recalls his personal history. It also includes a short interview I did with Bernard Coley that originally aired on the "Community Journal" series I produced for two years. Discovering the film was the beginning of a new phase in Bernard's life. Through the lens of George's camera, Bernard rediscovered his personal history and a new pride for the work of his grandmother and her pivotal role on the American stage.

A year later, Bernard and George had become friends; George and I had become friends; Bernard gave talks about the extraordinary work of his grandmother; George talked about making a sequel film that would trace the legacy of the film and the extended Coley family itself; and a call came from the Smithsonian museum. An exhibit was created about African-American midwives and it featured Miss Mary and two others. Bernard got a VIP pre-viewing at the Anacostia Smithsonian, ironically only blocks away from where he'd grown up.

Miss Mary's offspring had assumed that George had made a bundle from the movie and shared none of it with their family. In fact, George had sold some property to finish the film the way he wanted to make it. It took Bernard nearly four years of heated lot phone calls and family meetings for Bernard to bring George into the Coley fold. Early this year, George accompanied Bernard to Albany, Georgia. It was the first time he'd been back since Miss Mary's funeral in 1966, where, in the tense days of the Civil Rights movement, George was the only white present.

This Spring George returned to Albany as the guest of the Coleys and has become very close with one of her grandsons (who, as a 2 or 3 year old had a cameo in the film). His letters from Albany fairly sing with a youthful enthusiasm. He's had many fortuitous meetings with people who'd been helped by Miss Mary, or want to support his sequel. One day, for example, George was approached by an African American man who saw him viewing a monument. Not only was this man the first African American mayor of Albany, but an obstetrician as well. Albany has seen a lot of change in racial relations since many of Miss Mary's 11 children left town to make a better life for themself in other parts of the country.

George and the Coleys are organizing a tribute to Miss Mary to be held in late October. Some of the 3000 babies she delivered and some of the mothers she coached through those deliveries will converge to swap stories and talk about their own lives. I was invited to be one of the story recorders and know it will be an experience I'll always treasure. It will also be another precious chance to hang out with my good friend George.


  1. I am in awe of a person that would take the time out of his life to document such an important event in time. Especially in a time when racial tension were high and most "granny" midwives where thought to be ignorant,unsanitary, and unqualified to do their job properly. As a black aspiring midwife myself I have been looking for inspiration from my ancestors and Mr. Stoney, through you, answered my prayers. Thanks so much for sharing with the world what I always knew. Midwives can and still do assist healthy babies to come into the world.

    Peace and Blessings

  2. What a moving story, told so well.The first comment also was moving. From Flicks as allr1, to this new age of blogging, where I am Estarnan..... I am more sure than ever that WE ARE ALL ONE.

  3. I enjoyed seeing and learning about midwifery culture in the early 1950s southern Georgia. The movie caught a transitional point in USA history. I believe most Americans were born in hospitals after 1950.