Sarah Hudson Grant: Historic Daufuskie Island Midwife
A Vehicle to Tell Granny's Story
Sarah Hudson Grant: Historic Daufuskie Island Midwife
Story and Photography
by Laurie McCall
As Daufuskie Island’s midwife from 1932-1969, Mrs. Sarah Hudson Grant was the first to welcome 130 souls into the world, and as the undertaker, she was the last to bid many farewell on their journey home. As it was said, “Granny bring ‘em ‘n she take ‘em away.”
“There must’ve been a density about Mrs. Grant, a gravity about her presence. It’s true of anyone who spends much time with people as they die. She was a serious woman, with a regal bearing like a well-behaved queen, the kind of woman who when she passed by, the troublemakers got good for a little while.” That’s how southern author Bo Bryan describes Mrs. Grant. Although Bo never met her, well, not in life anyway, he lived in her house on Daufuskie and claims that he certainly felt her presence, “Especially when my kids would come visit. I always felt she was a protector.”
On April 2, the Daufuskie Island Historical Foundation welcomed back Mrs. Grant’s restored carriage to the island. Built in 1883, the spindle back carriage was the Jeep of the 1800s. When women went into labor, they would call for “Granny” to come. Mrs. Grant had a black horse named Tillman, after Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman, a South Carolina representative infamous for his murderous acts of terrorism against African Americans. She would hitch Tillman to the front of the carriage, and off she’d go.
The carriage, which was in great need of repair, was donated to the foundation in 2001. The Historic Foundation raised enough money to restore it to mint condition. Although the carriage was originally built by Chatham Carriage Works in Savannah, GA, it had to make a 700-mile trip to the Leola Coach Shop in Leola, Pennsylvania to be restored by Amish craftsmen. Meanwhile, the foundation began building a carriage house. They have since put in a request for siding to complete the building “for fear that the idea of a joyride might just be too tempting after a long night at Marshside Mama’s,” said Mrs. Jo Hill, President of the Daufuskie Island Historic Foundation. The carriage’s appearance is now so pristine even Mrs. Grant would likely not recognize it in all its splendor, complete with newly upholstered seats and freshly painted wheels.
Why go to so much trouble? What once was Mrs. Sarah Hudson Grant’s vehicle to deliver women and children from the agony of labor is now a vehicle to tell her story. Nearly 50 people showed up to honor the life and legacy of a woman who was the cornerstone of the community. Some of her “babies” came all the way from Savannah to help tell her story. Not only did Mrs. Grant deliver Ervin Simmons, President of the Daufuskie Island Foundation, but she also delivered his parents. I’m not saying Mr. Simmons was one of the “troublemakers,” but he did admit to being a bit scared of Mrs. Grant. He remembers her as being everywhere in the community and knowing everything about everyone. She was in the school with Mrs. Francis, the teacher, and she was president of the PTA. She was an oyster shucker, a member of the Brothers and Sisters Oyster Union Society, a “box manager” during elections and the unofficial island “mayor.” She was a member of the First Union African Baptist Church, a deaconess, a choir member and a Sunday school teacher.
Everyone who spoke of Mrs. Grant talked about her faith and her devotion to the church. Mr. Simmons recalled how the church service was long, too long for a bunch of young boys to sit still; however, that was exactly what Mrs. Grant expected the kids to do, sit still. Yvonne Wilson said, “She used to give us kids jobs to do, to help keep us busy so we wouldn’t be bothering anyone. One time she made my friend and I fix the communion trays, but we drank some of the wine and ended up acting so silly she had to send us home.”
Sallie Ann Robinson, famous for her cookbooks and her close ties to Pat Conroy, was another one of Mrs. Grant’s babies. She said, “Mrs. Grant came to rescue us in that carriage.” Sallie Ann used to think she’d grow up to become a midwife one day, and as a certified nursing assistant, she kind of did.
It must have taken a great deal of courage for Mrs. Grant to take on the responsibility of midwife on an isolated island with no doctor and no bridge to the mainland. She was the one to stand just outside that thin veil that separates life and death. Bo Bryan said, “Have you ever been around a woman trying to give birth with no pain medicine? She must’ve had a genius for calming things down, for bringing the chaos to heel. Her very presence must’ve been a sedative.”
Mrs. Ella Mae Jenkins, the last woman to give birth to a child with Mrs. Grant as the midwife, was the one to cut the ribbon at the ceremony. Her son, Alberto Stevens, the last baby “grannied” by Mrs. Grant before she retired, was born on January 14, 1969. I asked Mrs. Jenkins what it was like to have Mrs. Grant as midwife. “I reckon she was pretty good, all those babies she delivered.”
Ervin Simmons summed up the importance of Mrs. Grant’s life, the importance of all of our lives with a reference to the poem “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by John Donne. On Daufuskie, when someone passes away, the bell is tolled. A long toll indicates a long life and a short toll indicates a short life. “One day the bell will toll for each of us.” This was something that Mrs. Grant understood, which is why 39 years after her passing, her “babies” would tell her story to a crowd of people who gathered to honor her life’s service and her commitment to the community.
As Sallie Ann said, “She rescued us.”