Black History Month recognizes the centuries-long work by Black individuals to achieve equity by celebrating their achievements. There is still so much work to do, especially in the area of equitable outcomes for Black pregnancy, childbirth, and infant health. In this post, we recognize Black people who have made a significant difference in the lives of Black childbearing families in history. In Part 2 of this post, we will highlight today's champions for improving birth for Black families.
Champions for Safe Black Childbirth - A Spotlight on Black Midwives of the Past
The following list is by no means exhaustive. There were so many Black midwives who worked diligently and tirelessly to help Black families safely give birth to their babies.
Bridget "Biddy" Mason (1818-1891) - Biddy Mason was born enslaved in either Mississippi or Georgia. Learning from fellow enslaved women the skills passed down from African, Caribbean, and Native American traditions, she practiced midwifery, herbal medicine, and livestock and agricultural care. After relocating to California with the family who enslaved her, she finally gained her freedom. She ultimately became a prominent nurse and midwife, real estate entrepreneur, and philanthropist in Los Angeles.
Mary Jane Trust (1865-1933) - Mary Jane Trust was the first Black Licensed Midwife to practice in Kanawha County, VA.
Maude E. Callen (1898-1990) - Maude Callen practiced as a midwife for 62 years in the South Carolina lowcountry area and one of the poorest and most rural communities. She ran a clinic out of her home, which was far away from any hospital. She was known to walk miles through woods and creeks to get to her patients. She also trained other women in her community to be midwives. In 1951, Life magazine published a twelve-page photographic essay of Callen's work that received so much attention, readers donated $20,000, which opened the Maude E. Callen Clinic that ran until 1990.
Mary Francis Hill Coley (1900-1966) - Mary Coley served as a midwife across Georgia for more than 30 years. She was renowned for her advocacy of healthy babies and for her ability to bridge the healthcare gap for Black communities. She provided many additional services to families around the childbearing time. She was featured in the documentary, All My Babies: A Midwife's Own Story (1952), an instructional film for midwives in training.
Margaret Charles Smith (1906-2004) - Margaret Charles Smith was a midwife in Alabama for more than 3,000 babies. She was her county's first official midwife. She was renowned for her record of losing almost none of the babies she helped birth and none of the mothers, which is impressive considering the very high mortality rate for Black infants at the time. She cowrote a book about her career, Listen to Me Good: The Life Story of an Alabama Midwife (1996). In 2010, she was inducted into the Alabama Women's Hall of Fame.
Arilla Smiley (1926-2010) - One of the last known "granny midwives," Arilla Smiley was a midwife in Mitchell County, GA, where she helped more than 1,000 babies come into the world. She apprenticed under her mother-in-law, Beatrice Borders, who was a third generation midwife.
Stay tuned for Wednesday's post to learn about current midwives, professionals, and organizations that are working toward improving childbirth for Black families of today and in the future.
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