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Photo of Alabama midwife’s hands by Sharon D. Blackmon, c1981. Courtesy of Sharon D. Blackmon.


"I'm worth millions of dollars for what I've done. I thought I was doing a big thing. I was proud of it. The lives I've saved going to deliver all these babies...but they're losing a whole lot of babies now."

Margaret Charles Smith, 1996

Black Maternal Health

Black Maternal Health

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The grandmother called the men and children into the room. The father spoke, "Our first child born into freedom," he said. He knelt and prayed, the others repeating after him. "Thank you, Lord Jesus. Thank you for this new day, so long in coming, this freedom for all of us, and especially for our children. Amen. Amen.

After Emancipation 1863

The Women Who Caught the Babies

By: Eloise Greenfield


As we endeavor to liberate Black birthing in New Jersey, we must first abolish the racism experienced in maternal health and birth spaces. During a woman’s pregnancy, labor, and delivery, she wants, and she should expect, to feel safe regardless of race. Yet, race alone has been the catalyst for the mistreatment and undertreatment of Black women and birthing professionals. Sadly, this mistreatment has often resulted in death. In fact, 60% of maternal mortality deaths are preventable and one of the primary reasons Black people continue to die in the hospital is that their voices are largely ignored by medical providers.

How did we get here? To put things in historical context, many of our grandparents and great-grandparents were birthed by Black midwives or affectionately revered “grand midwives.” Black women throughout America were not allowed to birth in hospitals until the 1950’s. Midwifery was the first profession for many women in America, and this field consisted of predominately Black women.

They caught the babies,

and catch them still,

welcome them into the world,

for loving.

The history of Black midwifery dates back 403 years to when enslaved Africans were brought to America. African midwives were a subset of this population who brought their knowledge of women’s and reproductive health. Enslaved midwives were birthing everyone – both enslaved and white babies. As a result, many people proclaim that Black midwives “birthed and nursed America.”

The Women

The Women Who Caught the Babies

By: Eloise Greenfield

Untitled (Among Colleagues) (right)

This still of Mary Francis Hill Coley (center) and several of her colleague midwives during a hospital training was taken from the 1987 Black and white documentary film, "All My Babies."


Collection of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Robert Galbraith, © 1987 Robert GalbraitH


Black women dominated midwifery until approximately 1900 when anesthesia was introduced which led to an increase in hospital births rather than in-home births. It became more profitable for America to birth its babies in hospitals. This was the first step away from midwifery. As medical practices transitioned, the requirements for Black midwives unfairly changed and they were systemically “forced” out of midwifery. To increase hospital profits and increase control, many white male physicians began discrediting Black midwives. They promoted a narrative that these midwives were unsafe, unsanitary, and lacked training. These physicians stripped power from the same women who helped birth this nation. They undermined Black midwives’ credibility and brought white public health nurses into the south to supervise them. As a result of these inequitable practices, Black midwives, to this day, are extremely underrepresented in the birthing space.

Black midwives were pushed even further to the margins in the 1930s when there was a rise of white midwives training in England and bringing a nurse midwifery model back to America. Many Black women were excluded from participating in this new model. For example, in 1932, the Lobenstein Clinic and Maternity Center Association (MCA) launched the first US nurse-midwifery education program, and during MCA’s first twenty years only eight Black nurses received midwifery training. The issue of discrimination and mischaracterization continued. This was evident amongst Black midwives in the south who were publicly depicted as ‘unsanitary and superstitious,’ in contrast to the ‘well-trained’ midwives who were of European descent.

The evolution of racial segregation and injustice in maternal health through the 20th century reflected the same injustices running rampant throughout all of American society. By the 1960s and 1970s, the effects of the Civil Rights movement promoted a stronger impetus to get Black midwives into these training programs. This was, of course, ironic given Black women are pioneers in this space.

As we honor our ancestors who were trailblazers in midwifery, it is also critical to uplift today’s Black women who are fighting to reclaim birthing spaces. There is a dire need to reclaim our traditions, our legacy, and caring for our own people. The hallmark of midwifery is its acute attention and care when listening to people. When it comes to Black patients, who can listen to these sisters better than providers from our own communities? Midwives play a critical role because they respect mothers’ desires for their care by centering their voices.

Black people must know our history in order to make a change across these medical practices. For example, many people being trained as midwives in the 1970s were not told stories of Black midwives. Instead, much of their learned history started with the story of white midwives returning from England and inserting these practices into the United States. Today, we reclaim our legacy. Now is the time for us to reclaim our history and healing for our people.

Black Maternal Health (COVER).png



Salvation and Social Justice seeks to liberate public policy theologically by modeling the hope and resiliency of Black faith; where historically marginalized people move from lament to liberation by envisioning and creating their own community led solutions to a structurally racist society. Those solutions are steeped in safety, equity, and accountability. Those solutions include but are not limited to establishing Black maternal health centers run by Black women for Black women throughout the state, adopting policy that would provide general income support for Black mothers, as well as significant investments in targeted workforce development and support of Black women in midwifery programs as a response to the maternal health disparities that exist in the state.


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