Not too long ago off highway 45 in Pineville South Carolina, a rural place tucked into the lower part of the state, stood a small weathered structure. Had the landscape been lusher, the building might have slipped by as another forsaken place among the thousands lining America’s roads.

But, on this rural stretch of road, where civilization seems far away, the structure had asserted itself: the white concrete slabs stood out from the trees and the varying shades of browns and greens that colored the open land. Its façade once crawled  with moss and decay, hid the roofless interior. Inside walls had collapsed and door-less doorways led to small rooms where the earth had swallowed the floor and turned the tile to mud. But, under the brightness of a southern sky among the decay, one could see small remnants of what used to be: 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. That same year, members of the Sumpter Free Health Clinic, a small nonprofit based in St. Stephen, bought the building and have been fundraising to restore it. On Dec 2, their efforts brought new life to the building: a new roof, walls, and paint. They celebrated the restoration with a re-dedication ceremony of the space, now a museum celebrating her work and legacy, and aptly naming it the Maude Callen Clinic.

*All B & W images W. Eugene Smith Time/life