Off highway 45 in Pineville South Carolina, a rural place tucked into the lower part of the state, stands a small weathered structure. Were the landscape less bleak and desolate, the building would slip by as another forsaken place among the thousands that line the roads of America.
But, on this rural stretch of road seemingly away from civilization, the structure asserts itself: the white concrete slabs stand out against the trees and the varying shades of browns and greens that color the open land. Its façade crawls with moss and decay, hiding a roofless interior full of doorless doorways. Stepping through them will lead you down a narrow hallway flanked by rooms where the earth has swallowed the floor, turning tile to mud and grass; walls have collapsed, but tucked in corners are the smallest remnants of what used to be.
Here, under the brightness of a Southern sky, is the clinic of nurse-midwife Maude Evelyn Callen.
Born in Quincy, Florida in 1898, Callen was one of thirteen girls. Just six years into her life, she was orphaned and taken in by her uncle, Dr. William Gunn, Tallahasee’s first black doctor. From a young age, Callen often helped her uncle, who encouraged his young niece, eventually inspiring her to pursue a medical career. After high school, she graduated from Florida A & M University and continued her education at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama where she earned a nursing degree.
Immediately following graduation, she married William Dewer Callen. Two years later in 1923, when the Episcopal Church offered her a temporary medical missionary position in Pineville, Berkley county SC, they moved. Unlike Florida, Pineville was a remote desolate place surrounded by plantations. The residents, many former slaves, lived in tar shacks lit by oil lamps at “the edge of Hell Hole Swamp,” a still body of water where clouds of mosquito’s would swarm from April to October. In the dead of summer, the dragonflies would arrive, pushing out the mosquitoes, their wings shimmering in the air like transparent crystals.
The illusion ended there; Hell Hole had no such gems.
The destitution and abject poverty left most residents (98% whom were black) of Hell Hole unable to afford phones and basic human needs: clothing, food, and medical care. With no cars or buses, residents relied on wagons or buggies for the 10 mile trip to town. To make matters worse, the nearest hospital was also miles away, and the doctors from Monck’s corner, the country seat, refused to travel Hell Hole.
Callen immediately understood that her role would extend beyond a nurse-midwife—she was one of nine in the entire state. First, she turned her home into a clinic; there she did everything from yearly check ups to delivering babies to caring for the very sick. Then, driven by a relentless desire to nurse and through that raise up the community, Callen stepped into Hell Hole. But, reaching the sick was no small task.
Often she would drive her car through–each year she put 36,000 miles on it–over “400 square miles veined with muddy roads serving as doctor, dietitian, psychologist, [and] bail-goer.” When the tracks of dirt ended, Callen parked her car, took her bag and walked over a forest floor carpeted with brambles and weeds, crossing the occasionally bog; more dirt roads led to crudely built cabins that stood in the middle of nowhere like far-flung monuments commemorating the deprivation of Pineville. She did this midday and middle of night. To her, time was relative; it never mattered. What mattered were the people, who came to love her, giving her the nickname “Angel in Twilight” because her lamplight often broke through the darkness of the trees.
But, there was more.
Callen’s natural proclivity to be of service, led her to teaching in her off hours. Knowing the importance of a good education, she showed hundreds of children how to read and write. In the community and across the country, she also trained innumerable black women in the art of midwifery—she was a brilliant midwife who, during her 62 years in practice, brought 600-800 babies into the world.
On December 3, 1951, Life magazine sent the renowned photojournalist W. Eugene Smith to Pineville to photograph Callen. Smith spent six weeks alongside Callen, observing her in the clinic and accompanying her through winding roads of Hell Hole’s backwoods. During that time, Smith developed a kind of reverence for Callen, declaring his photographs of her were the “most rewarding of all [his] work” and that she was “the most completely fulfilled person I have ever known.”
When Life published the essay simply titled “Nurse-Midwife,” readers from around the world were so moved they began sending letters filled with donations to help Callen in, as one reader said, “her magnificent endeavor.” Day after day, the money arrived in checks and dollar bills, nickels and pennies, and soon the amount topped $20,000, allowing Callen to build The Maude E. Callen Clinic in Pineville, which she would run until her retirement in 1971.
In 1990, the clinic reopened as a senior center, where Callen volunteered serving meals and nurturing the elderly until she died later that year at the age of 91.
On November 8, 2017, Callen’s family and former patients gathered to honor her by unveiling a historical marker. Unfortunately, at present, the fate of the clinic remains unknown. Some have suggested it should be an open air museum for people to walk through and meditate on the life of one outstanding woman who single-handedly changed the course of thousands of lives and brought health care to Berkley County.
Maude E. Callen for your tireless service to humanity, we salute you.