Granny Midwives Part 1

Black midwife carrying her medial kit

Written by: Dr. Edith Langford

Author, Ethnographic Researcher & Clinician, Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC, LMHC), and Addiction Specialist (CASAC, ADC) with four decades of experience. After a lifetime of experiencing ongoing medical mistreatment, she is working on a memoir about medical racism in our healthcare system

It was Christmas Eve December 24, 1932, in a Shelby County coal mining town called Calera, Alabama.  Like a streak of black light Granny flies back into town like a bat out of hell. Only her very silent daughter, assistant Sally Eiland Miller known as Big Mama, accompanied her. She was her functional twin, in dress and behavior. She was only taller and a bit darker in complexion. In her photos her waistline appears so small o that it looks like it was photoshopped before there was Photoshop!

Clara (Clorisa) Lanier Eiland(s) was a granny midwife and at this point in her career. She was the only medical professional for miles around since the doctor she had worked with for many years had passed away.

Wagon wheels screaming and horse whinnying loudly as she comes to an almost reckless but very accurate stop. The horse was black, she wore all black; black bonnet, black shall, black dress sweeping the ground. Her black high button boots seemed to leave a trail of black smoke as she moved faster one could imagine.  Her black open back wagon revealed the tools of her trade all crammed into a huge black leather carrying case. Grabbing the bag, her welcoming committee of about 6 great grandchildren greeted her and ran into the house. They felt her sense of urgency as she ran into the house with the bag needing no directions. Her granddaughter, Clara Brown, would be giving birth by Granny’s calculations, within the next two days. In her opinion, due to other births over the past couple days, she was late. 

It was relatively colder than it was traditionally this time of year in central Alabama. This was a coal mining town. The men worked very hard sometimes for 12 hours in very hazardous conditions underground. Loss of multiple lives due to explosions and cave-ins were a too frequent occurrence. Those men tended to work hard and drink harder. This was an official holiday, Christmas which was one of the few granted to Black coal miners in the 1930’s. Granny normally did not depend on the men to prepare the house and the children for a birth.  When she showed up at the mother’s home the men usually ran away until summoned.

It was the tradition of most granny midwives to arrive a few days early if possible. She often took part in cooking cleaning and preparing the clean white sheets and cloths and often massaged the mother. She sent the men and kids out to gather certain herbs, and sometimes gird the mother according to the positioning of the baby. She allowed no obstructions or barriers to her most important duties which was answering her calling by praying with the family as she transformed the house into a safe and spiritually welcoming new home.

Often operating as a criminal, according to Alabama state law because she no longer had a White doctor to supervise her, she was never deterred. When Granny Eiland delivered babies, they were documented and certified by her.  They had a birth certificate signed by her. It was unusual for Blacks in Alabama to have a birth certificate and to be signed by a Black woman. At times it was highly irregular, and possibly also illegal. She was a well-read and educated woman. She was not one of those referred to as "untrainable" by Margret Murphy who was sent out by the American Medical Association to train the trainers. She focused on teaching granny midwives the new White techniques and methods that allow them to be registered.

Criminalizing Granny Midwifery

The efforts to criminalize granny midwifes was political and finance driven.

Starting in 1910 some states started to pass laws that would give grants to the state health departments to establish appropriate midwife training programs.    This is the list of exclusionary hoops that granny midwives now all needed to jump through to do the job that they knew they were called by God to do:

  • Travel from a very rural area-where they were often the only medical provider for humans and sometimes animals, leaving their children behind
  • Take a four-week training on a college campus—many of these women did not read. It was not a requirement for the job.
  • Find a White doctor, who often wanted to abolish midwifery, to allow them to attend at least five confinements under supervision, and to demonstrate to the state board of health that they could attend to normal labor.
  • The state also had regulatory measures which required doctors to check in after every midwife-assisted birth so that they could identify and report any infractions made by the midwives.

Eight years later in 1918, Alabama passed a law requiring all midwives currently practicing in the state to register with the state board of health and to pass an elementary examination. Margaret Murphy’s training program that started at the end of that year at Tuskegee Institute, set the stage for the first set of exclusionary hoops that would begin to dismantle the granny midwife system and finally midwives all together. The well-to-do nurse Murphy from New York, did more harm than good. She wrote in some of her reports that many of the Black granny midwives were “unteachable’’. That statement was later erroneously attributed to the historically Black institution, Tuskegee University. That statement played a major role in the dismantling of the granny midwife system which included 23,456 in Maryland alone in 1910.

All of these discrediting efforts were pursued because the field of OB-GYN had worked to legitimize itself with the discover of the forceps and other birthing techniques. White male doctors began to reap the financial gain from this perpetual stream of income from delivering babies. There was no need for Black grannies to continue to benefit financially from something that should rightfully be theirs. The granny midwives saw the use of forceps as barbaric and dangerous. They were not unteachable. They were not going to violate their calling.

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