History of Black Midwives


[vision_one_half]  Long ago, and in many parts of Africa today, midwives were revered, loved and depended on by the entire village. The Grand-midwives taught the apprentice midwife the traditional rituals of womanhood, childbearing and family care. These sacred rituals included prayer, homage and respect for the ancestors, massage, and preparation of food, breastfeeding, postpartum care and much more.

Sharon Robinson, critic and professor of midwifery and black health care systems, states in her 1984 study for the Journal of Nurse-Midwifery that the first Black lay midwife came to America in 1619, bringing with her knowledge of health and healing based on her African background.[/vision_one_half]

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Midwifery has always been an honored and spiritual profession among Africans who continued their rich traditions, even while enslaved. Historically Midwives of Color have saved the lives of countless mothers and babies throughout the United States. Both free and enslaved African midwives provided midwifery care not only to their communities but also to families outside of the Black community.

The social role of the traditional African midwife was as pillar of the community, in many cases she held the community together, she maintained the traditions that solidified families and built community.  Grand (Granny) midwives taught women how to be mothers and taught men how to be good husbands and fathers, they played a large part in shaping cultural perceptions of motherhood as well as functioning as officiate in the rite of passage of becoming a mother. Wilkie (2003) writes, “In addition to their medical expertise, midwives were bearers of cultural and communal standards.” Collins (1994) termed the work done on behalf of one’s own biological children or the community as “mother work.” Collins (1994) and Wilkie (2003) found, that Grand midwives of the pre- and post-civil war in the South were generational and cultural mediators interpreting “mothering” ideologies during enslavement, as well as the violent transition after freedom into the first part of the twentieth century definitions of white American role as mothers.

“Bringin in Da’ Spirit directed by Rhonda Haynes documents the history of the Grand Midwives and serves as the second chapter in the history of Black midwives in the United States. The relevancy of this aspect of US history was formally recognized in 2010, when tribute was made to them in the Black Midwives exhibit, (2010) at the National Library of Medicine (www.nlm.org).

However, systemic racism and Eurocentric patriarchal system built barrier for Midwives of Color to continue their cultural traditions in their practice, ones that Wilkie (2003), documented as essential in creating community and strength in the Black family.  The survival of the African American midwife was further challenged through the Sheppard’s Tower Act of 1950(Haynes 2002).  Systemic racism decreased the number of African American midwives. In 1920 there were 5,000 African American midwives in Georgia; by 2002 there were only 15 practicing African American midwives.  This became the norm throughout the southern states, where the majority of African Americans reside. And in some states outside the southern region, there are no Midwives of Color.

However, African based midwifery continued through non-traditional routes such as nurse midwifery schools, the first one being held at Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee Alabama and the second school was at in Mississippi. Both of the African American midwifery training programs, were short lived due to systemic racism within the educational system at the time. At the same Maude Callen, an African American nurse midwife and graduate from the Tuskegee opened a midwifery training program in her home to train midwives and to care for the elderly.  Midwifery in the African American community struggled to continue with direct entry midwifery trainings in the south through a permit method and African American women in the north entering nurse midwifery schools.

During the 1960-1980, the Soul Sistah Midwives era was created.  Many of the midwives came from organizations such as Childbirth Providers of African Descent (CPAD), the Traditional Childbearing Group (TCBG) and MAAT.

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