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NLM opens an exhibition in recognition of African American midwives

February -June 2010

NLM opens an exhibition in recognition of African American midwives


Nothing to Work With But Cleanliness:

African American "Grannies," Midwives, and Health Reform

Midwives seated 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 were 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.

Midwives at bed

Through photographs and artifacts, the exhibit tells a story about state and local training programs designed to educate the "granny" midwife. It highlights, midwives their nurse-midwife instructors and the many ways in which African American midwives contributed to improvements in maternal and infant care in the rural South-despite early reform efforts to eradicate them.

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,, 301.402.8847.