African American Midwifery

The Waccamaw Neck had a long tradition of lay midwives – indigenous healers and folk practitioners who followed the Gullah root medicine tradition. Although they usually had no formal medical training, midwives treated a variety of ailments in addition to attending births; they maintained a body of spiritual knowledge, and they understood the medicinal uses of regional plants and other substances used to treat and cure ailments. The only known midwife and root doctor at Hobcaw Barony was Laura Carr. Born into slavery in 1844, Carr provided care for the residents of the four African-American villages at Hobcaw Barony. She lived at Friendfield Village until her death in 1935.

Laura Carr, c. 1905

This c. 1905 photo features a former Friendfield Village Slave Cabin. Laura Carr (1868-1935) lived on the northwest end of the street, and is likely the woman sitting on the porch.

Women like Laura Carr were highly regarded within their communities, carriers of a tradition that was preserved and  passed down from generation to generation:

“Most midwives learned their trade through long apprenticeships to older, established midwives, usually their kinswomen. The apprenticed girl would accompany her mentor on visits to pregnant women, sew and clean for them, and stay with them after their babies were born. After years of attending births and after having their own first child, the apprentice could begin to assist at deliveries and eventually answer night calls for the senior midwife. When the senior midwife decided to retire, she would officially hand over her practice and patients to her chosen successor. In this way, the traditions of midwifery were passed from generation to generation and continuity in belief and practice were maintained.”  – Killing the Medical Self-help Tradition among African Americans: The Case of Lay Midwifery in North Carolina, 1912-1983, Holly Mathews, 62

Standing in the doorway separating life and death, midwives were significant conduits in both the spiritual and physical aspects of birth. A midwife’s methods incorporated folk medicine, herbal tradition, and conjure ritual. Depending on whether the pregnancy was wanted or unwanted, the fetus was either viewed as an invasive spiritual malignancy to be expelled from the body, or as a transitory spirit that could be accidentally frightened from the body. Even after birth, the infant’s soul was only lightly bound to this world, and required both spiritual and medical remedies to physically anchor the soul, and ensure the infant’s survival in the physical realm.

The relationship between the mother and the infant, and the infant’s spirit, echoes beliefs found in Western and Central Africa during the period of the transatlantic slave trade;

“Essentially, at birth, a baby’s spirit moves from the nether world to this one. In some explanations, a mother in the nether world loses a baby when an infant is born in this one and, when an infant in this world dies, it means its ghost mother has reclaimed it. Others simply state that the baby’s spirit is not necessarily wedded to staying rooted in a physical form and needs to be enticed to stay.” – Expelling frogs and binding babies: conception, gestation and birth in nineteenth-century African American midwifery, Laura Wilkie, 277

Because of the regarded fragility of the infant’s spirit, many nineteenth century African- American birthing and post-birthing rituals incorporated binding and protecting children at and after birth, wreathing them with protective devices to prevent interference and abduction by spirits. In addition, newborn babies would remain unnamed for nine days, to prevent malevolent spirits from locating and taking them back to the spirit world

Hobcaw Barony’s own Minnie Kennedy recounts the events surrounding her own birth.

Minnie Kennedy Describes Her Birth from Between the Waters on Vimeo.

Minnie’s mother’s fear that she had given birth to a witch is connected to African spirituality and is a feature of Gullah beliefs surrounding pregnancy and birthing.

Matilda Martin, c.1980

Matilda Martin (1890-1987) was a midwife by trade but is also remembered as being a community worker, a local historian, and the consummate humanitarian. She was the daughter of Louis and Lula Douglass Davis, and even as a young girl, was known for her compassion for others. Matilda Martin was the midwife who delivered Minnie Kennedy.

Another prominent role of the midwife was the administration of birth control. In the nineteenth century, a woman was only diagnosed as pregnant when she experienced quickening – or the first detection of fetal movement – for most women this occurs at about week 20. Prior to quickening, a woman was not pregnant, but could be diagnosed as suffering from delayed menses. Delayed menses was treated by triggering menstrual bleeding through the use of a category of herbal remedies known as emmenagogues, such as pennyroyal (Mentha Pulegium). Pennyroyal was also known as a powerful abortifacient – an herb which induced abortions.

African-American healing traditions, illnesses, and symptoms were often described in terms of the body being invaded by animals such as rattlesnakes, spiders, worms, frogs, and several other examples. A woman “suffering from frogs” was very likely a metaphor for a woman experiencing quickening. If the pregnancy was unwanted, she would be treated with abortifacients to expel the frogs. Anthropologist Laura Wilkie finds the image of expelling a frog compelling, “because it seems to convey so strongly a woman’s feelings of repulsion towards an unwanted invader. The situation is very different in cases of desired pregnancies.” (Expelling frogs and binding babies: conception, gestation and birth in nineteenth-century African American midwifery, Laura Wilkie,  276)

African-American women had little or no control over their own bodies during slavery, and for many years following. They endured physical and sexual violence at the hands of their owners and employers. Abortion as a method of birth control was a means by which African-American women could reclaim, and maintain, agency over their own bodies.

Mentha Pulegium

Medical Botany: Containing Systemic and General Descriptions, with Plates of All the Medicinal Plants, Indigenous and Exotic, Comprehended in the Catalogues of the Materia Medica, as Published by the Royal Colleges of Physicians of London and Edinburgh: Accompanied with a Circumstantial Detail of Their Medicinal Effects, and of the Diseases in which They Have Been Most Successfully Employed: in Three Volumes, Volume 3 By William Woodville, MD; printed by James Phillips (1790); Digitized by the Missouri Botanical Garden

African-American midwives came under attack by white medical professionals after the rise of obstetrics and gynecology in the early nineteenth century. In 1926, Felix Underwood, the director of the Mississippi Board of Health referred to African-American midwives as, “filthy and ignorant and not far removed from the jungles of Africa” (Killing the Medical Self-help Tradition among African Americans: The Case of Lay Midwifery in North Carolina, 1912-1983, Holly Mathews, 65). Federal and local laws were passed that required midwives to be licensed and registered, prohibited invasive births – making it illegal for midwives to enter the birth canal when attending to a birth – and obliged midwives to undergo inspection by medical officials.

Siloam, Green County, GA - Midwife on call with kit - LOC

Siloam, Greene County, Ga. (vicinity). Midwife going on a call, carrying her kit, c. 1941. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The attacks by medical officials, and a slanderous propaganda campaign that used racial stereotypes to distort the differences between midwives and doctors, brought disrepute to African-American midwifery and a dramatic decline in midwives during this period. This may help to explain why so little is known about Hobcaw Barony’s midwife Laura Carr. Though Carr’s full story may never be known, recent academic scholarship is helping to restore the image of the African-American midwife, and to establish her significance within the African-American community.

 

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