Our Origin Story

Rear view of woman washing clothes ca. between 1937 and 1938 via Library of Congress.

Rear view of woman washing clothes ca. between 1937 and 1938 via Library of Congress.

My idea to create Mother Wit Blog blossomed from a paper I wrote in my senior year of college. It was my final paper for my senior seminar history class entitled Mavericks of Mother Wit: Black Female Healthcare Workers and the Antebellum Plantation System. In researching for this paper I became inspired by the intelligence and dedication of Black Midwives to care for and uplift their communities of Black enslaved people. One phrase I continually came across was mother wit, which in essence was the collective wisdom of generations.

I want this blog to be a platform to showcase the stories of the wisdom that has led generations of Black Women to make huge impacts on American history. I dedicate this first post to the stories of Midwives who started me on my own journey of historic discovery.

The Hayward Family’s Slave Louisa with Her Legal Owner ca. 1858. Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis via pbs.org

The Hayward Family’s Slave Louisa with Her Legal Owner ca. 1858. Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis via pbs.org

Known as “Granny Mothers”, “Nurses” and “Granny Midwives” black women were the concrete that filled in the holes in the antebellum healthcare system.[1] Basic medicine ruled the distinctive Southern population. A landscape that derived from the combination of Euro-Americans, African Americans, and even the customs of Native populations’, this system of care was distinctive from any other region in the United States.  Black women are the unsung heroines of this facet of American History. A direct line can be drawn between the ancient practices of Midwives and the development of the southern healthcare system. Not only were they receptacles of this melting pot of customs, medicinal practices, and health information but they were also active in combating their oppression. Granny mothers were able to live long lives in the brutally oppressive system of slavery. Becoming midwives was a way for them to use their intelligence to prove they were indispensable past the age they could no longer perform physical labor. Slaves surviving to old age was rare, however when it did happen they were often incapable of taking care of themselves because their bodies were wrought by years of hard physical labor. Useless to their Slave Masters, elderly slaves were often manumitted and left to die fending for themselves.  Moses Grandy, a slave born in Camden, County North Carolina, recalls the treatment of his mother once she became too old to work. “She was sent to live in a little lonely log-hut in the woods. Aged and worn out slaves, whether men or women, are commonly so treated. No care is taken of them, except, perhaps, that a little ground is cleared about the hut, on which the old slave, if able, may raise corn. As far as the owner is concerned, they live or die as it happens.”[2]  Healthcare created a niche for elderly black women to prove their usefulness. Although they performed many healthcare duties on plantations one of their most important jobs was delivering babies. Skilled midwives not only “caught babies” for their fellow slave women, but were often hired out to deliver the babies of White families on neighboring farms and plantations.

While acting as midwives, Black Women tended to the physical, mental, and spiritual needs of those they cared for. The most inspiring aspect of their duties, and the reason I chose to name this blog Mother Wit, was their relationship with the soon to be slave mothers. Being any woman in the Antebllum South came with many challenges but being an enslaved woman came with distinct physical and emotional hardships. Black enslaved women were at constant risk of sexual violence and they were expected to work long hours doing back breaking work. These conditions seldom changed when slaves became pregnant, opening them up to sickness and potential risks to their lives and the lives of their unborn children.

Thomas Easterly, Family with Their Slave Nurse ca. 1850. via J. Paul Getty Museum.  Often times, elderly slave women would care for the Master’s children, especially when the Slave Mistress had died. Likely, this slave nurse also birthed these white children.

Thomas Easterly, Family with Their Slave Nurse ca. 1850. via J. Paul Getty Museum. Often times, elderly slave women would care for the Master’s children, especially when the Slave Mistress had died. Likely, this slave nurse also birthed these white children.

Midwives not only served to assist women prenatally and during labor but they also created a protective barrier of knowledge to help soothe the transition of the new mother back into plantation life. Slaveholders watched new mothers closely after giving birth to assure they recovered to full productive capabilities and were ready to breed more children. For this reason midwives also watched recovering slave women closely, administering herbs and root cures when necessary, and assisting in the overall recovery process.[3] If their remedies were effective they could protect postpartum mothers from the anger of greedy masters. Their old age not only gave them medicinal knowledge but also the practical knowledge of how to survive as a woman on a plantation that they could bestow on young slave mothers. The numerous slave babies they delivered gave them the postnatal knowledge of how to properly take care of the bodies of recent mothers during rest days and after returning to work while avoiding repercussions from an impatient slave master. Midwifery extended far beyond the physical act of conducting births and administering medicine. Granny Mothers acted as buffers for young women between the two worlds that they themselves were key actresses. They used generations of collective wisdom to uplift and protect the Black Women coming up behind them.

Midwives were intelligent women. They were receptacles of hundreds of years of knowledge and medicinal practices that they used to cure, care, and uplift generations of African Americans. Their use of mother wit sustained generations of Black People and is the essence of what it means to be a Black Woman. The backbone of the Black Community and of American history, it is time for the voices of these silenced generations of women to be known.

Follow Mother Wit Blog on its journey to re-imagine a history we thought we knew, but have yet to truly scratch the surface of.

 


[1]               Enslaved Women in America: An Encyclopedia, s.v. “Midwives” by Rashida L. Harrison.

[2]               Moses Grandy, Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy, Late a Slave in the United States of America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library, 2011), 26, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/southcarolina/reader.action?docID=797785 (accessed November 17, 2017).

[3]               Enslaved Women in America: An Encyclopedia, s.v. “Childbirth” by Kimberly Sambol-Tosco.

Andreia Wardlaw