This post begins a story of persistent will and horizons enlarged. It’s a personal story about my grandparents Mary Katharine “Kate” Smallwood and Billy Sylvester Guyton, who met as teenagers growing up in a small town and on a farm, respectively, in northeast Mississippi.
My aunt, Ruth Guyton Smith, is the primary source for most of the following. I interviewed her in August 2013 at age 90. As Kate and Billy’s only daughter and the youngest of 4 children, she enjoyed a particularly close relationship with her mother. A website, www.grammyruth.com, put together by daughter (my cousin) Karen Smith, commemorates that relationship with particular emphasis on Kate Smallwood’s 5 years in China.
Kate was a good student and a devout Methodist. When she was 11 years old, her father died of a heart attack. It was awful but not unexpected, as coronary problems affected many in the family – no close male relative would reach 50 years of age. Her interest in science grew as she moved through her education, perhaps an attempt to understand the bewildering cloud of inherited medical tragedy.
In 1906 she graduated from the Industrial Institute and College in Columbus, Mississippi, the first public women’s college in the United States. She wanted to become a doctor. However, medical school was out of the question. Few families had the resources for postgraduate tuition. A man could work his way through medical school, but wages for women’s work would not allow it. Still she was restless and did not want to settle for an ordinary life.
Kate Smallwood and Billy Guyton were sweethearts, growing closer through their college years despite his attending a Baptist college 200 miles away. They began to talk of marriage. His training and temperament led him into his first job as a land manager for a bank after graduation. He enjoyed the work, believing he could bring considerable benefit to the kind of folks he grew up around.
Kate had other thoughts. She urged Billy to consider medicine as a career.
Her passion and her estimate of his ability intrigued him. Yet if they married immediately and he assumed responsibility for wife and family, medical school would be impossible even for him.
The Methodists had an opportunity for women to serve as missionaries, role models, and teachers in China. They had begun a secondary education curriculum at the established Laura Haygood School for girls in Suzhou (pictured below), and progressive Chinese families in the vicinity of Shanghai were enrolling their daughters enthusiastically.
Kate left Mississippi to spend 2 postgraduate years in Kansas City, funded by the Methodists, learning Chinese language and culture as well as mission work. She was able to return from Kansas City to Mississippi periodically, and Billy proved to be constant in his admiration and affection for her.
Timing and distance for her China mission would work very well. If she stayed close, they would not be able to resist marrying, and their (by now) shared dream for his medical education would vanish. She would be gone to China for 5 years without a trip home during that time. They would correspond by postal mail which required more than two weeks to make the transit. He would be able to work part-time, unhindered by marriage, to support 4 years of medical school studies and then have 1 year of internship with pay.
Questions of safety must have been discussed. It was a time of flux in China. Just a few years prior, the Boxer Rebellion of 1897-1901 sought to end foreign influence in the vast country.
The Boxers originated in agricultural northern China, which had been suffering from drought. People from the commercial South around Shanghai were much more open to contact with outsiders. In 1900 the Empress Dowager Cixi, after some hesitation, gave her support to conservatives in the Imperial Court in Beijing and sent out the decree “Kill all foreigners.”
Kate would later learn – and often repeat – the story of a trusted officer of the court, a man raised in Shanghai, who changed the imperial telegram from “Kill all foreigners” to “Protect all foreigners.” When the Empress Dowager learned of his treachery, she had him sawn in half. The Empress relented enough to let his bisected body return to Shanghai, where it was said he had the grandest funeral ever held in that great city.
Kate and Billy became engaged when she was 21 and he 24 years old. Shortly thereafter, this announcement appeared in the New Albany, Mississippi, newspaper dated September 7, 1908:
Miss Kate Smallwood, who will leave here tomorrow for China, is the youngest missionary ever sent out by the Women’s Board of the Southern Methodist Church. She will teach in a mission school for girls either in Soochow or Shanghai.
The trip by train to the West Coast and then by steamer to Shanghai took 3 weeks, but was uneventful.
Suzhou, close to Shanghai, was her destination. The city was known, then as now, for its gardens and canals. It was a place of wealth and considerable influence.
Can we reconstruct what life was like in Suzhou (formerly translated as Soochow) for Kate? Fortunately she enjoyed kodaking, or photography.
Many pictures can be viewed on the website, www.grammyruth.com. Kate taught mathematics, physics, and astronomy. Above is her photo of physics class.
The girls were an impressive group.
Professionally mounted photographs, though a bit tarnished with time, give evidence of pride among families of graduates of the school.
A frightening event happened in 1912 during the latter part of Kate’s time in Suzhou, when the Qing dynasty was overthrown. Kate disclosed the story to her daughter Ruth, who recorded it as follows:
The city of Soochow was under siege, and in many of the provinces the missionaries were slaughtered. In this province, however, the leaders were not antagonistic toward the mission and the school, and had until this time protected them. The members of the mission had contingency plans should the city fall into the hands of the more violent factions of the rebellion. They had a bell tower at the school, which was to ring once to warn the missionaries to be alert. Two tolls was more serious — they were to get dressed and be ready to evacuate. Three rings meant to flee immediately.
One early morning Mama awakened to an eerie silence, no-one was stirring. She went to the next room and found it empty, then to the next with the same results. The building was empty. Mama was horrified, for she believed that she had slept through the three bells and had been left behind to be a victim of the insurgents. As she was quickly pulling on her clothes to run and hide, she heard a movement on the roof of the building. She crept up the stairs to find its source, perchance some of her group were hiding up there. To her utmost relief and surprise she found everyone from the mission looking off into the distance at a white flag — the city had surrendered without a shot, but one of the conditions of the surrender was the safety of the missionaries.
What kind of future could a young girl anticipate after losing her father early in life, growing up in a small town in northeast Mississippi? Her restlessness led her to spend 5 years encountering a great civilization, previously unknown to her, on the other side of the earth.
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Photographs 1906 to 1913, many by Kate Smallwood