In Africa, there were those who memorized the histories, told the stories,
played the music and sang the songs. These living libraries were called Griots.
Before the 1970s, few Americans knew the meaning of the word "griot." Mary Carter Smith’s work brought widespread awareness to the meaning and importance of the griot tradition. Perhaps no other individual has done more to bring traditional African stories, poems and songs to life across the United States and around the world. Since the beginning of Mother Mary’s career, interest in the traditions of the African Diasporas has grown.
Mary Carter Smith was born Mary Rogers Ward on February 10, 1919 in Birmingham, Alabama. She was raised and cared for by her grandmother and aunt. When the family moved to Baltimore, Mary attended Frederick Douglass High School. At Douglass, she continued to develop her emerging storytelling skills by participating in the school drama and speech clubs. After graduating from high school in 1938, Mary enrolled in Coppin Teachers College in Baltimore. In 1942, she earned her elementary education degree. She immediately went to work as an elementary school teacher and librarian in Baltimore's inner-city schools, a career that would last 31 years.
Although the Baltimore public schools had a high percentage of African American students, the system did not offer classes on African culture or heritage. Mary became a serious collector of traditional African and African American stories, poems, and songs. She began teaching her students about their African heritage. In 1969, Mary traveled to Ghana, the first of her many trips to Africa, and immersed herself in the native culture. In 1971, she took a leave of absence from teaching to pursue storytelling on a full-time basis. Her popularity as a storyteller increased as she performed at schools, churches, festivals and other venues. By 1973, it became clear to Mary that she had to decide between a career in teaching or storytelling. After 31 years of teaching in the Baltimore City public schools, she left to become a full-time storyteller of traditional African and African American tales. Mary became the host of a Maryland Public Television show entitled "Black Is”. In 1975, she launched a radio show on Baltimore’s
WEAA-FM at Morgan State University. The name of the show, for which she served as creator, producer and host, was
“Griot for the Young and Young of Heart.” The show was broadcast regularly throughout the 1990s. Mary faced tragedy in 1978 when her only child, Ricardo, was stabbed to death. Rather than being destroyed by grief, she incorporated the emotional impact of losing her son to violence into her art. She often included the story of her son's death in her presentations.
Mary was an activist, founding the Citizen's Coalition of Baltimore in 1981. In 1983, she was named "Baltimore's Official Griot." That same year, she co-founded the National Association of Black Storytellers with fellow storyteller Linda Goss. In 1989, Baltimore's
National Great Blacks in Wax Museum immortalized Mary in a wax figure. In the same year, she helped found the Griots’ Circle of Maryland storytelling association. Two years later, she became the State of Maryland's official griot. In 1994, the National Association of Black Storytellers named her “America’s Mother Griot.” NABS bestowed their highest honor, the Zora Neale Hurston award, on Mary in 1985 .
In 1998, Mary was inducted into the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame. During 1999, she traveled to Ghana for the first International Storytelling Conference. Through her work, a new generation of griots has been created. Mary Carter Smith wrote several books, “Town Child”, Heart To Heart” and “My Autobiography: A Tale That Is Told”. Her efforts have ensured that future generations will continue to value and pass on the dynamic stories, songs, and poems of the African Diaspora.