In the middle of the Jim Crow South, midwife Beatrice Borders created a haven for Black mothers to safely deliver their babies.
As Black History Month leads into Women’s History Month, family and friends of Borders – who was known as “Miss Bea” – are working to preserve her legacy and tell her history.
“Miss Bea didn’t have any children of her own,” said Jacquelyn Briscoe, Borders’ adopted granddaughter, “but she became the mother of thousands just by opening her home as a maternity shelter.”
In 1940, Borders and her mother, Georgia Williams, were traveling midwives who delivered babies for Black and white women in their rural corner of southwest Georgia, about an hour from the Florida state line. But they worried about the living conditions of many of their Black clients. Most pregnant rural Black women in that era delivered their babies at home with a midwife; they often weren’t allowed in segregated hospitals or couldn’t afford hospital fees.
“A lot of the homes Miss Bea and her mother went in to help were not conducive to giving birth because there wasn’t adequate plumbing, there was disease, health issues all around,” said Briscoe.
“Granny said a lot of times the homes were so horrific that she knew there had to be a better way. She thought that if she could do deliveries in her home, it would be safer and cleaner, and they could control the environment.”
So Borders turned her own four-room house in Camilla, Ga. into what was likely the state’s first Black-owned birth center. She named it the Georgia B. Williams Nursing Home, after her mother. (At the time, ‘nursing’ was a term used in reference to mothers and infants.)
Borders and her assistants delivered more than 6,000 babies at the birth center over the following three decades, until her death in 1971.
Now Borders’ home – a rare surviving example of a segregation-era birth center – is at risk of being lost. It’s been vacant for nearly two decades as Borders’ family works to secure funding and expertise to preserve it. The building was recently named one of the nation’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
‘Mother of thousands’
Beatrice Borders first began delivering babies around 1918, when she was 26. She learned the trade from her mother and her grandmother, Katie Jones. Thousands of midwives like them worked across the South in the early 1900s, providing desperately needed prenatal, birth and postpartum care for their clients.
Read more: The hidden history of what happened to thousands of Black midwives in the South
After Borders and her mother determined that one of the biggest barriers to keeping their clients and infants healthy was the poor living conditions where they had to deliver, they decided attending births at their home could be much-needed solution.
In the mid-1930s, they began inviting their clients to birth at their little home at 176 Dyer Street in Camilla. They officially opened as a birth center in 1940, delivering babies in the back rooms of the house while the front rooms remained their living space.
As her business grew, Borders added on more rooms to her home, including two post-birth recovery rooms with a dedicated delivery room between them. Newborns slept in white bassinets beside their mothers’ beds. A small side room just for preemies was kept scrupulously clean and with restricted access. Borders employed assistants, nurses and other midwives. The center was eventually licensed by the state to host up to eight clients at a time, though Georgia’s white public health officials only allowed Black women to deliver there. Still, Borders was sometimes called upon by white women living in the area to deliver their babies at their homes.
A Black-owned birth center was a rarity in the rural South. As word spread, women began traveling in from surrounding counties.
Read more: This Black-owned birth center just delivered its first baby as the state threatens to shut it down.
New mothers typically stayed at the center three days, receiving three meals a day while they rested.
“They got rest and comfort there, and they didn’t have to worry about anything, just enjoying their baby, because all of it was taken care of through the services Miss Bea offered,” Briscoe said. It was a brief respite for women who otherwise worked difficult jobs, often on farms, with no time off.
As Briscoe grew older, she and her sisters helped Borders in the center, serving meals to patients, canning vegetables and cleaning. Her mother helped deliver babies when she wasn’t working at another job.
Borders charged $25 for a delivery at the beginning of her career, a fee that increased to $75 in later years. However, she refused to turn away women who couldn’t afford her services, Briscoe said. Instead, she accepted bartered goods as payment.
“A lot of times, you would see people bringing in sausages during hog-killing time, a side of ham, stuff like that,” said Briscoe. “They’d bring their hampers of beans and peas from their garden. Every time I turned around, we had a bushel of peas to eat.”
Although Borders was one of Camilla’s most successful Black businesswomen in the 1950s and 1960s, she struggled to make ends meet. To help support the birth center, she rented out two of the bedrooms in her home to Black teachers who taught in Camilla during the school year. She often babysat local children whose parents worked.
“She was the sweetest person, and she could be stern,” said Briscoe. “But she was always wanting to help people.”
She sold plates of food as fundraisers for the Black churches in the community. She cared for her relatives. When her cousin got sick, leaving six children who needed care, Borders adopted them – one of whom was Briscoe’s father Stephen. Borders also took in several children of another relative who was a working single mother.
“She was a very busy person,” said Briscoe, “but she was a fantastic person.”
Preserving Black history
After Borders died in 1971, the state took back her birth center license. Briscoe’s mother wanted to keep the birth center going, but new state regulations and requirements designed to funnel pregnant women into physician-attended hospital births made it impossible to continue, Briscoe said. The building became a day care center, then closed in 2004.
It’s been vacant since, and has fallen into significant disrepair.
Briscoe and others are determined to honor Borders’ legacy and make sure her contribution to Georgia women and children isn’t forgotten. They incorporated as a nonprofit in 2009 and got the building added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2011.
The goal, said Briscoe, is to renovate the building and turn it into a museum and multi-use community space called the Georgia B. Williams Southern Midwife Museum and Educational Center.
The preservation plan for the center was created by Savannah, Ga.-based Ethos Preservation.
“For too long, Black historic sites in Georgia were unrecognized or ignored,” said Rebecca Fenwick, a principal at Ethos who worked on the plan. “Without preserving the places and the spaces where the stories took place, the stories become lost or distant.”
In 2021, the nonprofit was awarded $75,000 from the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. They’ve also received a grant from the National Park Service’s African American Civil Rights Grant Program, but they’re still trying to raise funds to pay for all of the extensive renovations needed.
Read more: Alabama wants to make birth centers harder to open. Midwives are pushing back.
“Once the building becomes usable, we want to host workshops for speakers to come in and talk about midwifery,” said Briscoe. “We also want to give scholarships to at least two African American ladies graduating high school who want to take up midwifery and one for someone who wants to go into child development.
“This place may not be used for delivering babies anymore, but we need to make sure this history stays alive,” Briscoe said. “They say midwifery was done away with, but it’s coming back. We need to make sure people know about it.”
How to get involved
- Learn more at BeasBabies.org, including how to donate toward restoration efforts
- Get updates and view photos and video of the restoration on the Georgia B Williams Restoration Project page on Facebook.
- A book about Beatrice Borders and her birth center, “Going to Ms. Bea’s,” is available for purchase online. All proceeds benefit the restoration of the birth center, Briscoe said.
- The nonprofit is soliciting videos, photos and stories from people who were born at the birth center or who have relatives who were born there. Visit BeasBabies.org to learn how to contribute these pieces of history.