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.