Mary Francis Hill was born August 15, 1900 in Baker County, Georgia. She was the youngest child and the surviving twin of Martha, who died at childbirth. Mary was raised by her aunts and uncles after losing her parents at a young age, and her value of willingness to help others was shaped by this act. Mary had little, if any, formal education, but in a Georgia where women were often treated as less than equal citizens, and where, for poor and black women, the struggle was compounded, she became an influential advocate for community health.
Mary married carpenter Ashley Coley and the family moved to Albany in 1930. It was after this move that she became interested in midwifery and was trained by Alabama midwife Onnie Lee Logan in the apprentice tradition. For over 30 years Mary delivered more than 3,000 babies in Dougherty, Lee, Mitchell and Worth counties. She was known for her tireless work ethic and her willingness to serve both black and white mothers in the segregated south.
Her care of new families extended beyond the delivery of the baby. She would visit for days after the birth to help in cooking, cleaning and washing clothes, and she organized the registration of forms and certificates to be filed with the county health office. She believed her work was a spiritual calling, and she let nothing keep her from mothers who needed her, seeing no racial barriers.
Mary Coley was recognized by more than her community for the work she did. In 1952, documentarian George Stoney filmed All My Babies, a movie produced by the Georgia Health Department as an instructional training film. Stoney followed “Miss Mary” for four months, recording the preparation for and delivery of babies in rural conditions in the Albany area, with help from local public health doctors and nurses. The film is not only a portrait of Mary, but also is a historical record of the actual living conditions of her patients.
In 2002 the film was selected by the Library of Congress for placement on the National Film Registry as “a culturally, historically and artistically significant work.” It has been used as a tool for midwife training and as an example of early documentary style filming .
The Anacostia Smithsonian Museum for African American History and Culture hosted an exhibit in 2005, “Reclaiming Midwives: Pillars of Community Support” which featured Miss Mary among the midwives. The exhibit emphasizes the role of African American midwives at the center of health and social support systems in black communities.
That same year other exhibits opened at the Columbia University School of Nursing as well as the Mailman School of Public Health in New York City. Mary Coley was featured in both.
When Mary Coley died in March, 1966 in Albany, she was recognized as a healer, an advocate for healthy babies, and a liaison between the healthcare system and her community. She was also hailed as a role model for future generations of women who want to make a difference.
In 2007 George Stoney returned to Georgia to film a reunion of 150 babies delivered by Mary, all grown up with stories of their own. The film is currently in the editing stage. When these people tell the stories of their lives, it will be even more evident that Mary Coley had a profound influence on her community and beyond.