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Midwifery 1800-1960

Throughout the nineteenth century and until the 1950s, African American midwives delivered nearly all black babies and many white ones. Before the Civil War every plantation had at least one midwife.

Midwives used their own birth experiences, medical knowledge, herbal remedies, patent medicines, and ritual incantations. They also drew on spiritual help from God. They believed they had received a spiritual call and were said to have “the gift” and to possess “mother wit.”

In 1913, Dr. Walter A. Plecker, Virginia’s first registrar of vital statistics, blamed midwives for a maternal death rate that was three times as high for African American as for white women. Plecker led the state bureaucracy in a public health campaign that eventually wiped out midwifery. In 1912 there were 9,500 midwives in Virginia; in 1950 only 1,500 had permits. By the end of the 1950s, African American midwives had nearly disappeared.

Exhibit Items

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