Carrying Community: The Black Midwife’s Bag in the American SouthHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, Black History, womens history, black womens history, medical history
Cara Delay, Associate Professor of History at the College of Charleston, holds degrees from Boston College and Brandeis University. Her research analyzes women, gender, and culture in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Ireland, Britain, and the British Empire, with a particular focus on the history of reproduction, pregnancy, and childbirth.
The classic 1953 documentary film All My Babies features the life and work of Mary Coley, a legendary African-American “granny” midwife.1 The film follows Coley as she travels around her rural Georgia community carrying her ever-present black satchel. In one memorable scene, the exhausted midwife returns home after a long night of “catching babies.”2 As Coley falls into bed, the camera pans to her midwifery bag, which she has hastily discarded on a trunk alongside her coat. Drifting off to sleep, Coley hears a voice in her head: that of the local white doctor, who, in an earlier training session, reminded the lay midwives that infection could result if “something wasn’t clean.” Despite her fatigue, Coley gets up and puts on the kettle. Emptying her midwifery bag of its contents, she boils and scrubs each tool in it. When she finally returns to bed, the sun has come up. Immediately, there is a knock at Coley’s door: another woman has gone into labor. There will be no rest for this baby-catcher on this morning.
The film’s intended message is about hygiene. The Georgia Department of Public Health produced All My Babies to help instruct black “granny” midwives on modern medicalized (read: white and male) birthing practices, particularly sanitation. The film thus was part and parcel of early- to mid-twentieth-century attempts to surveil and regulate lay midwives, most of whom were black, in the American South.3 This project privileged white, male, allopathic medical knowledge over the woman-dominated and community-based health traditions of black communities. Lay midwifery ended completely in most places by the 1960s, when state regulations finally shut black midwives out of business.4 Still, up to the 1960s, white hospitals prevented black women in the South from accessing reproductive services in white hospitals. These women continued to receive healthcare from the “grannies” who learned their trade by apprenticeship. Women like Coley, then, worked, and even thrived, in an era of transition.
The policing of midwives’ bags and what was in them was central to the mission that would ultimately destroy black women’s traditional health networks. What midwives carried in their medical satchels, and how they took care of their supplies, featured prominently in reform movements. In 1920s Virginia, for example, regulations stated that “A midwife’s bag was only supposed to contain certain items: soap, clean towels or cloth, a white apron and hat, scissors to cut the umbilical cord, silver nitrate to prevent blindness, and birth certificate forms.” A white Georgia nurse employed to educate black lay midwives in the late 1920s later recalled: “I had classes at least once a month. I taught them how to pack their supplies, wrap them and bake them in the oven at a low temperature.”5
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