National Library of Medicine Exhibit on African American Midwives

By Rachel Walden — February 5, 2010

For readers around the D.C. area: the National Library of Medicine’s History of Medicine division in Bethesda, MD will run an exhibit through June of this year on the history of African American “granny” midwives. Details below:

Nothing To Work With But Cleanliness: African American “Grannies”, Midwives & Health Reform

For over three centuries, African American midwives delivered babies and practiced folk medicine in rural counties throughout the South. Midwifery came under public scrutiny in the 1910s when progressive reformers blamed the “unsanitary practices” of midwives for the higher rate of maternal and infant deaths. During the next two decades reformers campaigned unsuccessfully to eliminate the practice of midwifery. There simply were not enough skilled physicians or hospital facilities in southern rural communities. Poverty and pervasive racial discrimination also made home births more desirable than hospital deliveries to many of the African American families living in rural counties.

Training midwives was deemed the only viable solution in the South where African Americans midwives were predominate. Midwives received instruction from public health nurses during annual state-sponsored institutes and monthly local midwives clubs. Classes, which emphasized sanitary delivery practices, were taught by demonstration, songs and role playing. From the 1920s through the 1960s this next generation of midwives continued in the tradition of their “granny” predecessors with the added benefit of scientific knowledge.

Through photographs and artifacts, the exhibit tells the story of “granny” midwives and the state and local training programs that educated them and succeeding generations of midwives.

The exhibition, inside and outside the NLM History of Medicine Division Reading Room, Building 38, first floor, runs from February 2010 to June 2010. All are welcome to visit, 8:30 AM to 5:00 PM weekdays, except federal holidays.

Directions, security, parking, etc.:

For more information: Sheena Morrison, sheena dot morrison at nih dot gov 301.402.8847

[hat tip to a LinkedIn post by Jeffrey Reznick, Deputy Chief, History of Medicine Division, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health]

2 responses to “National Library of Medicine Exhibit on African American Midwives”

  1. About four years ago there was a thought-provoking exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Museum for African American History and Culture, “Reclaiming Midwives: Pillars of Community Support.” It raised important questions about authority, autonomy, and control of knowledge in the context of a deeply racist society which valued white people’s authority and knowledge over black people’s authority and knowledge. We need to be critical of our own history. A good commentary here:

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