Mary Tillman Smith was born in southern Mississippi in 1904. She was the third of thirteen children of sharecropper parents. Her childhood was typical of the times. The Smiths worked hard to supply their family with a subsistence living. Educational and economic opportunities for the children were limited. Compounding these challenges to survival and success, Mary was born with a severe hearing impairment. Her difficulty hearing and speaking served to isolate her from her siblings, peers and society. Even so, Mary managed to stay in school through the fifth grade and was proficient in reading and writing. Her intelligence, fortitude and spirit were obviously present at an early age.
As a teen, she married Gus Williams, a union that lasted just two months due to her new husband’s infidelity and her uncompromising refusal to accept it. Now a young divorced woman, Mary worked and lived independently from her family. She soon met John Smith, a sharecropper, and they married. Together, they raised potatoes and peanuts. However, their lives together would also be disrupted by a controversy not of Mary’s making, but again, of her principles. As a sharecropper, John Smith worked his farm and was given an end-of-year settlement by the landlord based on the farm’s production. Mary Smith kept careful farm records and her calculations did not agree with the landlord’s meager assessment. In the dispute that ensued, the landlord ordered John Smith to get rid of his wife if he wanted to continue working the farm. Smith agreed, sent Mary packing, and took on a new “wife” provided by the landlord. Mary left for nearby town of Hazelhurst, which would be her new home. These events in Mary Smith’s life as a young woman, in a time and culture that almost required her to have a husband for economic and social survival, paint a picture of a woman who was fiercely independent and willing to risk all for her integrity. She would not bow down. Mary Smith settled in Hazlehurst and worked as a domestic. She raised a son, fathered by a man that she did not marry, but maintained a close relationship with. She was deeply religious and was actively engaged with her faith and church.
It was not until the mid-1970s, when she was approaching seventy years of age, that Mary T. Smith would emerge as an artist. In his wonderful book Souls Grown Deep, William Arnett provides a thoughtfully concise cultural framework for thinking about Smith’s life and art. He writes, “From the late 1960s through the 1970s, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., a remarkable cultural phenomenon unfolded in the southern United States yet went almost unnoticed. As if in unspoken response to a trumpet’s reveille, black people throughout the region came out from their houses, or factories, or in from the fields, and intensified their creation of artistic environments, or “yard shows,” so the outside world could see what had been previously expressed in secrecy inside and behind their residences. It had been there for centuries, this yard-show tradition, but almost no one outside the culture knew about it, this not-for-our-eyes cubism, fauvism, expressionism, surrealism, dada, abstract expressionism, pop, minimalism, graffiti, postmodern, neo-this, neo-that, neo-everything. Or proto-everything. Also in that decade Mary T. Smith decided to start expressing ideas that had been in her head since childhood. With a private space that was hers to create, to define, and to decorate, the show would spotlight her for the world surrounding her. It was a world of people who had at their worst laughed at her and been contemptuous of her, and at their best had simply tolerated her as someone who was different and insignificant.”
Photos by Willam Arnett. Courtesy of Souls Grown Deep Foundation and SPACES Archives