A Brief History of Black Midwifery in the US

Black women’s accomplishments and contributions to midwifery are often overlooked. Their birth work stems from practices and traditions that date back to pre-colonization. In their African communities, midwives were more than birth workers and would do so much more than just catch babies. They were also known as spiritual healers. They acted as family counselors, breastfeeding consultants, postpartum doulas, nutritionists, family planning counselors – they were advocates and provided resources and care for their people. This rich tradition was passed down, from healer to healer and practiced even during slavery. They would not only attend the births of black women, but were often present and attended white women’s births. Today, due to systematic racism in the United States, the number of black midwives is low. However it is important to discuss the history and accomplishments black midwives have brought to birth work. I want to introduce some influential black birth workers that made a difference in this community. 

Biddy Mason was born into slavery in Georgia. She was given to her master as a “gift” for his wedding. Her slave owners converted her and the rest of their slaves to Mormonism. They traveled around the country for the Mormon Church. Around 1851 they settled in California, which was a free state, making any slave born or living in California free. Her master did not know of this law and planned to take his slaves to Texas to be sold. Biddy escaped to Los Angles and gained legal emancipation from slavery. She began working as a nurse midwife in Los Angeles. She later became one of the wealthiest black Americans in Los Angeles.

In her time as a midwife Miss Mary attended over 3,000 births. Mary served both black and white families in the segregated south. She was known for not only being there for the birth but also provided postpartum care where she would cook, clean, and help families fill out birth documents. In 1952 a documentary, “All My babies: A Midwife’s Own Story” was made following Miss Mary through her practice as a midwife. This documentary shows us a glimpse of what midwifery was like and the living conditions of the families she served.

Margaret Charles Smith is famous for being one of the last practicing Grand (Granny) midwives. Margaret had a very early interest in birth – she caught a baby at the age of five while waiting for the midwife. She went to midwifery school in 1949. Most of her patients were living in poverty and were malnourished. She would spend her days traveling far distances in the south, wading through waters just to get to her births. In her lifetime she helped deliver 3,500 babies. She was very skilled and never lost a birthing parent. Margaret Charles Smith’s story can be read in her autobiography, Listen to Me Good: The Life Story of an Alabama Midwife, and also viewed in the film “Miss Margaret“.

Onnie Lee Logan lived in Alabama where she was one of 16 children. Her mother and grandmother were midwives and at a young age she knew she wanted to be a midwife as well. She grew up very poor in the south where she would pick cotton and do small domestic jobs to help support her large family. A majority of births at this time were home births. Most of Onnie’s patients were living in poverty themselves so she did most of her birth work for free. She managed to be a midwife and make ends meet by working as a maid for income. Later in life, Onnie was introduced to a professor named Katherine Clark. Clark was fascinated with Onnie’s stories and was inspired to write a book about it called Motherwit: An Alabama Midwife’s story. This book gained Onnie popularity in the feminist community. She was also recognized in The Norton Book of Women’s Lives alongside other famous women such as Simone de Beauvoir, Anne Frank, Maya Angelou, Lillian Hellman, and Joan Didion.

Due to racism and sexism, many of the histories, accomplishments and legacies of black women’s contributions to birth work has been forgotten. Much of American midwifery history focuses on white women, which erases and silences black midwives experiences and accomplishments. Black women being excluded from these histories does not erase the tremendous amount of work they have done for birth work. More opportunities for black midwives and birth workers need to be given to black women. Conversations about the importance of midwives needs to include black midwives and their experiences. It is important to remember and celebrate the wisdom and hard work black midwives contributed to birth work.

So what, as a birth professional, may you do to be sure that you are holding space and acknowledging the wisdom and work that has been done by black midwives? Perhaps take some time today to evaluate your own inner dialogue around this topic. What comes up for you? What does your doula community do to acknowledge the history of black midwives? What current initiatives are happening in your community in support of diversity and honoring black mothers, families, and ultimately the midwives that support them?  What can you do to help recognize and bring back this wisdom lost?

Written by:

Marleen Jett, owner of Birth With Nature, is a birth and postpartum doula in Los Angeles.  Marleen provides deep emotional and physical care for families during birth and early parenthood. She incorporates her love for local organic food by educating families on nutrition. Before becoming a doula Marleen worked as a child care provider where she gained an interest in natural birth.  Marleen has a passion for social service. She is dedicated to providing a safe place for the LGBTQ community and victims of sexual abuse in the birthing community.

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