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History of Black Midwifery

The History of Black Midwifery in the U.S.

Few traditions have as long and powerful a history as Black midwifery. The skills and knowledge of a midwife have endured and grown through countless generations. Midwifery is still alive today as more people recognize the importance of Black midwives and birth attendants. The story of Black midwives in America is one of resilience, community support and deep-rooted strength.

When Did Black Midwifery Begin?

Midwives have provided support and guidance before, during and after childbirth for thousands of years. Until the last few centuries, male doctors typically didn’t counsel pregnant women or assist with childbirth at all. Helping with pregnancy and birth was the job of the midwife, and midwifery was both a skilled trade and a rich cultural tradition. Midwives would train apprentices, who would pass on generational knowledge and wisdom to apprentices of their own.

One of the earliest records of Black midwives is in the Bible’s Book of Exodus. The Pharaoh of Egypt ordered two Nubian midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to kill all firstborn Hebrew males, and the midwives refused. From this very first story and for millennia since, Black midwives have held true to the sanctity of their work. Midwives advocate for both mother and child, no matter the circumstances.

How Did Black Midwifery Help Shape America?

According to some sources, the first Black midwife came to America in 1619 to help the earliest settlers endure difficult pregnancy and birth conditions. Midwifery was an essential trade, and Black midwives carried extensive expertise from their African ancestors.

Many Black midwives in America were enslaved people who survived the Middle Passage. They provided compassion and health care to their communities. Because of their specialized skillset, enslaved midwives often had permission to travel. They helped maintain family bonds and kept records of ancestry even amid the evils of slavery.

After Emancipation, Black midwives traveled the country and supported women from all walks of life. Black midwives were colloquially known as “granny midwives,” and they helped thousands of women in need. Through this period, they continued to train apprentices and pass down their ancestral knowledge.

Physicians (almost exclusively male and white) began to notice the health risks of childbirth in the middle of the 19th century. Still, home births with the help of a midwife remained the norm until the turn of the 20th century. This was especially true in the South, where in 1918, Black midwives attended 87.9% of Black births in Mississippi.

Racist Targeting of Black Midwifery

In the early 20th century, racist attitudes drove physicians and lawmakers to take aim at Black midwives, poor immigrant midwives and indigenous midwives. These midwives received their training through the ancient apprenticeship method, rather than the mostly racist and classist medical schools of the time. The Shepherd-Towner Act of 1921 required midwives to register with white physicians and nurses who would judge if the midwives were “qualified” to deliver children.

Across America, hospital births became more common. Many women started to consider giving birth in a hospital more advanced and modern than giving birth at home. Racist propaganda from medical organizations painting Black women as inferior and incompetent contributed to this shift.

Maternal mortality rates rose in the 1940s, as inexperienced doctors acted on their own assumptions of how childbirth should progress rather than proven methods. Eventually, the problem became so widespread that lawmakers required all physicians, nurses and midwives to obtain a state medical certification to legally deliver children.

Many Black midwives became medically certified and continued to work through the 1940s and 1950s. In the 1970s, the older generation of “granny midwives” retired. Fewer home births meant that these older midwives had fewer apprentices through which they could pass on the craft.

In response, nonprofit organizations such as the Black-led Traditional Childbearing Group and Childbirth Providers of African Descent formed to revive the millennias-old tradition of Black midwives. These organizations also highlighted the overlooked cultural and historical significance of Black midwives.

What Does Black Midwifery in America Look Like Today?

The traditions of Black midwives are still very much alive in America. This base of knowledge is more important than ever, as the internet has normalized dangerous misinformation around childbirth and pregnancy. Thousands of modern women benefit from the support of experienced Black midwives and doulas every year.

Founded in 2018, the National Black Midwives Alliance works to address systemic issues facing modern Black midwives. The NBMA is also campaigning to dedicate March 14 as Black Midwives Day. The first Black-owned and accredited midwifery school, Commonsense Childbirth School of Midwifery, opened its doors in 2020. The 21st century is shaping up to be a renaissance in Black midwifery and compassionate pregnancy care overall.

Why Are Black Midwives and Doulas Important?

Doulas and midwives are both trained professionals, but they do slightly different things. A midwife is a primary care provider with a license to diagnose and treat medical conditions. Doulas are also trained professionals, but their focus is primarily to support the pregnant person, advocate for them and connect them with trustworthy medical care resources. Doulas often provide emotional support, as well, and they can reduce pain during both pregnancy and childbirth.

Black midwives and doulas are critical in America today, as Black women are two to six times more likely to die in childbirth than women of other ethnicities. Black birth attendants can help at every stage of pregnancy, birth and recovery. Doula-attended deliveries are often shorter and easier, requiring invasive methods such as forceps and cesarean sections considerably less often. Most importantly, midwives and doulas bring the pregnant person’s needs to the forefront where they belong.

Where Can You Find More Information on Black Midwifery and Black Doulas?

Pregnancy can be an exciting time in a person’s life, but it is often also full of anxiety and uncertainty. That’s why midwives, doulas and other birth professionals have dedicated their lives to supporting pregnant women for thousands of years. The compassionate tradition of Black midwifery continues to the present day. At BirthWise Doula Services, we’re committed to helping women have more comfortable, safe and fulfilling pregnancies and births. Contact us for more information on how a trained doula can help you on your journey.

https://blackmidwivesalliance.org/#:~:text=NBMA%20is%20Campaigning%20for%20a,on%20March%2014%20each%20year

https://www.change.org/p/local-agencies-that-make-decisions-about-education-and-healthcare-campaign-to-establish-a-black-midwives-day

https://shafiamonroe.com/black-midwives-through-time/

https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/stories/historical-significance-doulas-and-midwives

https://quickening.midwife.org/roundtable/black-history-month-honoring-black-grand-midwives-and-supporting-black-midwives-today/

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