Remembering “Granny” Midwives

Hidden knowledge can be powerful. It empowered enslaved Black women in the 18th and 19th centuries to resist oppression. African midwives brought with them the folk knowledge of methods of contraception and abortion. It was part of their cultural heritage.

White plantation owners valued enslaved Black women as breeders, as people who could provide their owner with a future slave. Plantation owners became distressed when enslaved women were not producing children. A 19th Century doctor even wrote that slaves “…seemed to be possessed of a secret by which they destroy the fetus at an early age of gestation.”

The enslaved Black women asserted a simple human right. They knew that through contraception and abortion, a woman has more control over her body. Unfortunately, some of the methods used by the women for abortion were dangerous. Consuming turpentine, quinine tablets or certain herbs could lead to severe injury, even death. But women were desperate, determined, and willing to risk their lives.

After the Civil War, attempts to suppress Black midwives’ knowledge of these folk methods continued but failed. The experience of rape and forced breeding by white plantation owners strengthened Black women’s desire to control their fertility. They wanted to be able to choose whether and when to have a child.

Black midwives provided the majority of health care to Black women in the South well into the 1960s. Henry W. Foster, Jr. MD recognized their value. He wrote: “During the eight years (1965-1973) when I was chief of the OB/GYN service at Tuskegee Institute’s University Hospital, 17,000 babies were delivered. I was the only obstetrician in a five-county area. Had it not been for that wonderful cadre of midwives as my assistants, I could not have survived. I delivered about 8,000 of those babies including the more complicated deliveries. My nurse-midwives delivered the other 9,000 babies.”

From the 19th century until 1973, abortion was illegal across the nation. Women depended on those who would operate illegally. Sometimes white women traveled to Black neighborhoods to get abortions from “Granny” midwives. They had knowledge of abortion passed down from the days of slavery.

Today, 2019, despite the legalization of abortion with Roe v. Wade in 1973, reproductive justice is continuously challenged. Restrictions on access to sexual and reproductive health care have increased. Maternal mortality has risen, more among women of color than white women. Vacancies in the federal court system are now being filled with conservative anti-choice judges. Roe v. Wade is in jeopardy.

We grandmothers remember those days when access to contraception was limited and abortion was illegal. Every woman has a right to make her own decisions about health care. No woman should die from preventable pregnancy-related complications. We remember the efforts of the “Granny” midwives to assert women’s autonomy.

A right is not a right unless one can exercise it. Many cannot exercise their right to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care. But together, women of all colors can build a world where we will be able to exercise our rights. We will not stop fighting until reproductive justice is a reality for all.