"If somebody needed help — Granny was going. Black and whites alike, it made no difference to her," Mary Othella Burnette says of her late grandmother, a second-generation midwife in Black Appalachia.




It's time now for StoryCorps. Today, we'll hear from 90-year-old Mary Othella Burnette, who wanted to remember her grandmother.

MARY OTHELLA BURNETTE: She probably weighed not more than 110 pounds. She was about 4 feet, 11 inches tall. And her hair hung well below her waist. She had deep-set eyes and a fierce look as if she were looking right through you.

FADEL: Mary Stepp Burnette Hayden was born into slavery in Black Mountain, N.C. After she was freed, she became a midwife.

DEBORA HAMILTON PALMER: What was your relationship with her like, Mom?

BURNETTE: She delivered me. She used to tell me how I startled her and my dad a few minutes after I was born by opening my eyes and turning my head to look around the room. And she said, God, look at that. My grandmother loved to talk. And most of her stories were bad.


BURNETTE: But Granny's stories were real-life stories. She didn't know anything about "Hansel And Gretel." Here is this woman, a former slave, walking around, delivering babies and helping people. You have to understand that back when Granny started, there were no hospitals for Black people to go to. And poor people had no money to pay for professional medical care. So if you had a disease that could not be treated by a midwife, you died at home. Houses could be several miles apart. And bears commonly roved the neighborhoods. But she walked. If somebody needed help, Granny was going. Black and whites alike, it made no difference to her. She was fearless. You know, she never boasted about what she did, but she probably caught several hundred babies, if not more.

PALMER: How old was Granny Hayden when she stopped her practice?

BURNETTE: She was about 90 years old. She was a very strong, little woman. You know, when people think about slavery, they think about hundreds of years ago, not about somebody who died in 1956. She was a pillar not only in our family but in our community. And I assumed she would always be there, like when you're a child, you assume everything's going to be there. But I'm very proud to have descended from someone like my grandmother - very, very proud.

FADEL: That's Mary Othella Burnette and her daughter Debora Hamilton Palmer. They remembered their grandmother and great-grandmother, Mary Stepp Burnette Hayden. She died at the age of 98. Their interview was archived at the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.