Radical-Unlicensed Healers

Mothers of Gynecology Monument

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

In February 2022, nearly 100 years after Granny Eiland was welcoming babies into the world, I met the first Black midwife to be licensed in Alabama since 1976, Dr. Stephanie Mitchell,  CNM, MSN, DNP (Certified Nurse Midwife, Master of Nursing and Doctor of Nursing Practice). Her mission is to establish The Birth Sanctuary, the first Black birthing center in Alabama. She and I spoke of the struggle of all Black midwives over the past nearly 50 years.

Dr. Mitchell reports, ” I was the first Black midwife licensed since the illegalization’s in 1976. My license number is 22. The first 21 were White because they could not find the black midwives.” Apparently in the entire state of Alabama, none of the multitude of existing midwives met the licensing standard.

We met at The Mothers of Gynecology Conference in Montgomery Alabama, which was founded by activist and artist, Michelle Browder. Browder’s 14-foot metal sculpture titled, “The Mothers of Gynecology” honors Anarcha, Lucie and Betsy, three of the women purchased by Dr. Marion Sims, who brutalized enslaved African women to achieve his medical goals and his reputation as “The Father of Gynecology.” He used these women as human guinea pigs to discover new surgical methods, instruments, and techniques still used today. He never gave them anesthesia for these surgeries. They were not thought to have human feelings and sensations. However, he did purposely addict them to opium to be used between surgery to keep them beholden to him and not run away.

We gathered at the conference to set the record straight. Dr. Marion Sims did not deserve to be revered as “The Father of Gynecology.” That day of the conference in Montgomery we met to bestow the honor to the true ‘Mothers of Gynecology ”. We gathered – healers, mothers, naturalists, medical, mental, and community health practitioners. We gathered around a magnificent sculpture of those three women who represented many more whose names are lost. We gathered around food. We chatted and laughed and cried. For three days we called their names, we marched and sang the old Negro spiritual and civil rights war song,  “I ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around. I am gonna keep on a- talking, keep on a-marching, marching up to freedom land.” We embodied their spirits. I felt Granny Eiland with us. Later Granny showed up and showed out!

Sixty miles south from Granny Eiland’s workplace stands a building in downtown Montgomery behind which Sims erected a makeshift hospital used as his enslaved Black women’s torture chamber. There the women lived and cared for each other acting as nurses and support to the ones recently butchered as they would for many others over the coming years. At the same time, they were not relieved of any of their duties as a Black slave woman: field work, housework, childcare, wet nurse and providing sex upon demand from their master and any other White men who came to them.

The building’s most recent tenant, a real estate company, reported paranormal activities and vacated leaving many things behind. Like most downtown capital cities in the ‘old South’, the buildings are well maintained. This building still looked old. Its white trimmed windows did not brighten it. Its history overshadowed all the maintenance.  It stood strong and represented its confederate era.

However, its large showroom window downstairs now features African and African American art and artifacts. The building is being transformed and reclaimed by the constant presence of very powerful Black women occupying, singing, crying, laughing and praying in this space.  These new women are led by Michelle Browder; this building is being reversed and repurposed for good. 

It is only bricks and mortar; it doesn’t have a soul. It’s not human. The space behind the office building remains empty where the shanty slave hospital once stood, it appears to be an infrequently used parking lot. Now this historically dreadful place will be what Black women want it to be. Here I learned that this infamous building has historical connections to Calera, Alabama; my maternal family homes. Granny’s home.

Calera summons me, my generation and Granny Eiland. I am clear about why granny’s spirit showed up. The quiet focused deliberate Granny did not show up. The vicious, angry, loud, flailing Granny showed up. The voice of the women who knew how to quietly break the rules, how to lead from the rear, was very loud. She shouted, “Come hell or high water, you are not going to neglect, mistreat, and brutally abuse these women anymore!” She spun around in quick jerky motions and spit fire as her little black hat flew across the room revealing her long snow-white hair seldom seen. That hair cascaded down as a traditionally tightly wrapped bun became undone in a rhythmic unfolding.  She screamed, “It stops today, I traveled nearly ninety years forward in time to put all who would do so on notice. Don’t make me return!”. She looked at me and then scanned the eyes of all the women gathered and said, “Just in case they disqualify you again, I hereby license you, I authorize you and I command you to go forward with or without fear and catch these human babies warmly and love their mothers as your sisters.” She turned to that old building and said, “Don’t make me come back again!”

Calera is my connection to the land. My oldest ancestors are buried here. My “Granny Eiland” lived, worked, and died in Calera, Alabama.

How many days and nights did she travel the backroad alone to deliver babies or attend to the sick? How often was she scrutinized and or harassed? Her work was illegal after the old doctor died. It was illegal when he signed my uncle’s birth certificate in 1932. The old White doctor was dead.

I visited the “Colored” section of Calera in Summer as a child. I never saw the “White” section. There was no reason to leave my loving kind nurturing family to go exploring a place that I had been told to avoid.

When I heard of the building’s owner’s connection to Calera. My body had a visceral response first. Then came my first thoughts. I felt even more that possibly these Black and White people are my folk. The next thought was that the owners of the building are children of racist plantation owners trying to wash their money with the blood of the Black women who ushered in modern gynecology. My anger took the form of a thumping in my throat.

Thanks, Granny Eiland, for being radical in not waiting to be licensed.

Much to the contrary, I have followed all the rules and standards. I came along in a time when desegregation was the thing. My parents, who had attended Historically Black Colleges, Tuskegee Institute and Alabama A&M College, had been involved in the civil rights movement. When the doors opened to White educational institutions. My siblings and peers were shot through the doors like black cannon balls. We were compelled to prove that we could qualify and compete with White students. We did.

Not like Granny, I personally needed to be licensed and authorized to do the work I was called to do. I was always concerned about being told that I was not qualified; that I couldn’t have that. I continued to accumulate certificates, licenses, degrees, and academic recognition until there was nothing higher to achieve. Dr. Stephanie Mitchell, fully qualified to work as a midwife and still needed to jump through thousands of hoops to do the work she was called to do. Granny authorized, qualified, and licensed herself to do the work that she was called to do.

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