All over Mama Africa, midwives were revered, adored and the backbone of entire villages. A woman was called into midwifery through a whisper from God, appointed by the community elders, chosen by an elder midwife, or moved by community need. The Grand-midwives taught the apprentice midwives the traditional rituals and rhythms of womanhood, birth, and newborn care. These sacred rituals included prayer practice, honoring ancestors, healing touch/massage, meal preparation, breastfeeding, postpartum care etc.
The first Black lay midwife came to America in 1619, carrying an extensive knowledge of health and healing from her homeland. Midwifery was a spiritual profession and means for Africans to continue their rich traditions, even while enslaved. For hundreds of years Black midwives brought life into the world and saved the lives of mothers and babies throughout the United States. Free and enslaved Black midwives provided midwifery care not only to their communities but also to families outside of the Black community.
Midwifery came under public scrutiny during the 1910s when Progressive reformers and medical professionals argued that getting rid of the midwives would yield noticeable improvements in maternal and infant care. By the early 1920s the terms “granny,” and “granny-midwife” were synonymous with black midwives in the rural South. The 1921 Sheppard–Towner Maternity and Infancy Protection Act created regulatory programs where registered nurses trained midwives in hospital protocol. Slowly and methodically the black midwife presence was obliterated.
The Traditional Black Midwife’s calling expanded beyond receiving babies into the world. She was a healer, a spiritual leader, a pillar of public health activism and a fierce community organizer. Their legacy touches each of us and I am blessed to be a birth worker that gains strength from the roots of my history.