Ruth Johnson remembers being sent to the pay phone in the middle of the night to call the midwife when her mother’s labor pains started. “I called the midwife. She said she was coming. She never did show up,” Johnson said, thinking back to life as a 12-year-old in Barnwell County in the late 1950s.
Before long, Ruth’s mother sent her back to the pay phone at the Hilda grocery store. The second time, the midwife admitted she had no intention of coming to help with the birth. “She said, ‘Your mama, she owes me $25 for the last baby.’” And so the baby was born in the family home, without a birth certificate — a common practice in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s in rural South Carolina, but one that is causing problems now for an older generation required to have proof of identification.
Before the government began discouraging midwifery in the 1970s, a lot of women in rural South Carolina didn’t go to hospitals to have their babies, either because of the cost, discrimination or culture. Often, the births were unrecorded, whether a midwife was in attendance or not. In some cases, names were misspelled by illiterate midwives or recorded incompletely when parents couldn’t settle on a first name right away.
But having no birth certificate, or having one where the name conflicts with other legal documents, can cause problems today proving one’s identification — and getting the photo ID required to get a job, travel, go into public buildings and, in a recent and controversial change in South Carolina, to vote.
In some cases, people who have never had a problem before must now go to family court to authenticate the names they have used all their lives.
Joseph Williams, a physician who sees mostly elderly patients in Sumter, guessed as many as 20 percent of his 3,000 to 4,000 regular patients have problems with identification. Some only know the year they were born.
“It’s extremely common for people who are over 50,” said Williams, who is 60. “Record-keeping was poor in our age group.”