Around 500 Babies: Myrah Keating Smith

Footsteps thumped down the path, and she heard them before the child’s shout, “Miss Myrah!” By the time the sharp bang on the door rattled the shells hanging in the window, she was already up and reaching for her bag. Ignoring Andro’s sleepy complaint, “Who is it, mama?” she fumbled for clothing. “Hush, now. It’s just Elijah…it’s Purdy’s time.” Her bones ached a little, but when didn’t they, when the island breeze shifted in October? Purdy was young and strong, and the baby had been kicking for months. It would be fine. Dress pulled over her head, bag in hand, she set off after Elijah on the path. The moonlight was dim, but they’d traveled this so many times, they both knew every twist and every rock…

Ma’ho Bay on St. John’s, recent resorts wiped out by Hurricane Irma. Photo by kajmeister.

When I was in St. John’s on vacation two weeks ago, our tour bus rounded a steep corner, and the guide barked out in his island lilt, “This is our beloved MKS, the Myrah Keating Smith Hospital. Myrah was a midwife on the island who delivered over 500 babies…”

…and I thought to myself, there’s probably a lot more to that story.

It’s a week after International Women’s Day, but it’s still Women’s History month! Even if all I have is a little Wikipedia entry, I can read between the silences. What follows is mostly truth, with a little fictional speculation on my part to bring it to life. Clearly a remarkable woman!

African Names, Danish Legacy

Myrah Keating Smith was born in 1908 and raised on Lovango Cay, a small spit of land next to St. John’s island, all at the time part of the Danish West Indies. What were the Danes doing there? A little side trip is necessary as explanation. By the time the Mayflower was floundering into Boston and the Spanish were spreading over Florida, the Danes were itching to get in the action over in the New World. Everyone was grabbing up Caribbean islands — French, British, Spanish — and the Danes wanted in on the lucrative sugar crop. They knew how to sail, too, and they “discovered” that St. Thomas and St. John were “uninhabited” (other than the people who already lived there), so the Danes claimed them in 1672. Originally, the settlement they created was two Danish men yanked out of a Copenhagen prison.

According to Kenneth Dick’s “Historical Account of the Lovango Islands”: “the Danes were in charge of converting the Indians which they found a difficult task, as only two or three are to be found… ‘John Indian’ [was]…punished by the loss of his leg for his various attempts at running away.” Still, the Danes wondered why they couldn’t find any of the natives!

map from St. John Historical Society

The sugar crop was booming on the other islands, but the Danes couldn’t transport enough prisoners over to work the land, and there weren’t enough natives, even though they did cut off legs of those who tried to escape. The Danes had a problem. They chartered the Danish West India Company to provide the solution. With their Viking legacy, they had always been great at seafaring and knew ships and cargo. For the next century, they would chain up 120,000 people on African wharves, stuff as many as possible into the holds, and drag them over to the islands.

Today, Lovango Cay is a resort where the tour guides claim its name referred to a robust 18th century brothel trade (love-and-go). But the historical society explains that its name is really a reference to a sister city back in the Congo: Lu’ango. Thus, the tiny island where Myrah and her twin Andromeada grew up was a reminder of the place where their ancestors had come from.

In 1917, Lovango Cay and the rest of the Danish West Indies were sold to the Americans. The British had occupied the islands during the Napoleonic wars–why? one too many rabbit holes for me to go down although the Brits did name them after their queen–and had been chased off by the mid-19th century. The Danes had done well working the land at least until slavery was abolished, but between the insurrections and riots, their ventures went bankrupt. Eventually the Americans agreed to take St. Thomas, St. John, and the other cays off the Danes’ hands for $25 million. In 1917, the U.S. was worried that the Kaiser would buy it or simply invade with U-Boats that would anchor near U.S. coastline. So they paid the Danes and agreed to let them “keep” Greenland.

Photo from

Off to College

Myrah and twin sister Meada attended a basement school on St. John, with eighteen other children until the teacher found it too difficult to “commute” (row). The children’s stepfather took to home-schooling them. When Myrah was fourteen, she traveled to New York City by boat for eight days, then took a train for another three days to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

Days and days on the boat, but she was used to boats. She and her sister had rowed every day from their little cay over to Miss Stephanie’s house for school until Miss Stephanie said it was too hard when the storms came, and she was getting too old. So Meada and she had read books with Daddy Edward, over and over. But after all the books were done, she wanted to know more and had begged Momma and Daddy hard until they finally gave in, and here she sat on this boat for days, watching how the sea gulls circled flotillas of seaweed until–oh my! It was like a dream, this new island but instead of trees, full of buildings that reached to the sky, all brick, although also giant metal grids that were more buildings on the way. And the noise and the people! She had never imagined so many people…

It seems a roundabout way to go, to a modern eye. Why not just go straight from the islands to Alabama? A plane could go in a few hours. Couldn’t they just hop over from Charlotte Amalie, or at least take a boat to Charleston or Miami, then catch a train in the south? But who knows what might happen to a ship in 1922, crossing the Caribbean and the Gulf? Who knows what it would have been like for a 14-year Black girl from the islands to cross the Jim Crow lands from South Carolina to Alabama? Probably better to go through immigrant central, New York City, where officials handled your papers as they had for millions of others, brusque but not with villainy in their hearts.

Tuskegee in 1922, photo from “Black Perspectives”

The train had been far more crowded than the boat, a crush of bodies, three to a seat, others plopped in the aisles. Lots of dark skin, huddled together, enduring the late August heat. But it was safer in a group, although she couldn’t help but think of another set of bodies, huddled in a boat across the long sea journey to come into her Caribbean jungle in chains. No chains here, only a lot of hope for all of them to go to “college,” whatever that would mean. She could hardly wrap her mind around it, after her largest set of schoolmates had been the eighteen children in a basement. But it turned out, when she got to Alabama, that she had read some of those books already, that Aristotle and Mr. Shakespeare, those books her Daddy had bid her be so careful with. So many books here! she couldn’t wait…

Myrah arrived in Tuskegee Institute in 1922, forty years after it had been founded by Booker T. Washington. It was also a few years after George Washington Carver had advanced the reputation of the school, brought in money for science and medicine. She studied at Tuskegee for nine years and would be gone before the infamous hospital began its other work with the U.S. Public Health Service, on the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. That would come later.

Meanwhile in the ’20s, after the teenaged Myrah finished the preliminary courses, she was sent to study “handicrafts.” Rather quickly, she was moved to study at the hospital, the only student in surgical nursing. She graduated in 1931 with a degree in nursing and midwivery. Next came a short stint on St. Tomas under a physician’s watchful eye, but after only two years, she was back home on St. John.

She would be the only working medical practitioner on the island for decades.

At 1300 ft, the highest point on St. John’s afford a great view. Hard to climb without a road. Photo by kajmeister.

From Surgical Nurse to Midwife along the Goat Paths

The howl emerging from the little hut was other-worldly. She rushed after Zeke, Purdy’s youngest, who has still hacking away new growth from the rains. Screams and cries were normal, but the mother’s tone told her something was wrong. When she burst in and rushed to the moaning woman’s side, she saw the stomach heaving. The baby was trying to turn, but wasn’t there yet. A breech baby could be handled in a hospital, and she herself had done a few, but a breech was dangerous. Many died, along with their mother.

They had boiled her some tea as a courtesy, and she poured the hot liquid right over rags and a small knife from her kit. Some doctors wouldn’t relinquish their old ways, operate without washing, but she had seen different in her training. Hot water, good and hot, could save lives. Wiping her hands on that scalding rag until they turned bright brown, she probed with one and could feel feet–not good. With a sure grip she started pushing the little limbs… Lizzie moaned at the intrusion… but then the baby’s head was in the right place. The moan turned to anger–get this thing out! As little shoulders followed the dark head, she was already wiping out its mouth, and when the feet followed, the mouth opened with a squall that was indignant, but a blessing.

Myrah acted as nurse and midwife–and doctor–if truth be told, until the late ’70s. She was celebrated by the physicians on St. Thomas as well as by those who appreciated her use of the “old medicines.” When she began her practice, the island had no paved roads and no electricity. She would make her way to patients on goat paths and with rowboats, up and down paths in rain and sweltering heat, daylight and moonlight alike. Babies don’t make appointments.

She heard the footsteps on the path again, or was she dreaming? It seemed like she was always hearing them. Which one was this now? Oh, yes, Charlie–Purdy’s grandson. “Miss Myrah!” The same high pipes of a breathless boy, the same knock on the door, although a sturdier door now, no windows to rattle in this house, the second one that Al had built after Hurricane Easy. She was already reaching for her bag…

In 1983, the little clinic on St. John was finally upgraded to a hospital. There was an obvious candidate for a name.

Photo from St. John’s News.

Myrah ended her official practice somewhere in her late sixties, ready to step aside for the youngsters who could take those paths better. They rode bicycles to patients sometimes, now that there was a road.

After Myrah Keating Smith passed away in 1994, she was inducted into the Virgin Island’s Women’s Hall of Fame.

Five hundred babies? More like a thousand, she thought, as the speakers droned on about her legacy and their legacy and the legacy of the island people and the wealthy donors. Easily a thousand if you count the ones that died before they could let out a healthy yell or died before they saw a second birthday from the cough or the fever which swept through the houses every decade or so like a bad rainy season. They said she could remember all their birthdays, and the trick was that you only had to remember the recent ones and a few of the older ones because so many others had gone–in the first war, the second war, the hurricanes, the swamp fever, the sudden storms–that was the men, but the women went, too many in birth. She remembered all their names, too…

Myra Keating Smith in the ’80s, photo from the St. John Historical Society.

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