In the early 1900s, thousands of Black midwives worked throughout the South, delivering Black and white babies and providing desperately needed reproductive care.
By the 1980s, they’d been systemically pushed out of the South’s healthcare landscape by public health officials and a mostly-white medical establishment.
These women birthed our nation. So here’s a quick history lesson to honor the South’s “granny” or Grand midwives, their contributions and their legacy.
Black midwives brought knowledge, skills and traditions from African cultures to America after their enslavement, including birthing positions and the use of herbs to ease labor. Until the late 1800s, most U.S. births were attended by midwives, many of them Black or indigenous.
After Emancipation, thousands of Black midwives, often called “granny midwives,” continued to attend births for Black and white women, especially in the South. They were often the sole healthcare provider for rural families.
As childbirth became more medicalized, states began requiring lay midwives to register with health boards. Black midwives continued to care for Black mothers, who were not welcome in segregated hospitals.
Death rates for women & babies attended by midwives were often the same as or better than those attended by physicians. One 1930s study in Alabama found maternal & infant mortality rates for Black women attended by midwives were lower than for white women attended by physicians.
White doctors & public health officials began campaigns to persuade women to abandon Black midwives in favor of doctor-attended hospital births. By 1950, more than 80% of all deliveries occurred in hospitals. Midwives attended less than 10%.
Southern states rushed to pass laws ending lay midwives’ ability to practice. Within a few years, the medical establishment and public health officials had effectively shut Black lay midwives out of the healthcare system.
More than 98% of U.S. babies are now born in hospitals, attended by doctors. But a renewed interest in midwifery means the number of midwife-attended births is steadily increasing. Nationwide, groups are working to improve the Black midwife workforce.
A few good reads and first-person narratives about the history of the South’s Black midwives.
Listen to Me Good by Margaret Charles Smith & Linda Janet Holmes
Motherwit by Onnie Lee Logan
Going to Ms. Bea’s by J. S. LaVern
Why Not Me? By Wendy Bovard and Gladys Milton
Delivered by Midwives by Jenny M. Luke