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Black History Month - Honoring Black Midwife Pioneers

February is Black History Month, and we are celebrating by honoring some midwives and doulas who changed the face of Black breastfeeding and had an impact on the world that is still felt today.

History of Black Breastfeeding

In the early 20th century midwives and doulas provided care for both Black and White mothers, primarily in the southern states, such as Alabama, Mississippi, and North Carolina, in a time when breastfeeding was not always seen as the norm within Black communities. Because breastfeeding wasn't prevalent in Black culture, mothers and grandmothers never really spoke about breastfeeding to their daughters, and midwives and doulas were seen as healers that held the spiritual and cultural knowledge on how to birth and feed newborn infants that was passed down through generations.

Trailblazing Black Midwives and Doulas

Margaret Charles Smith

Margaret Charles Smith black history month breastfeeding pioneers nursing

Margaret Charles Smith was a Black midwife in rural Alabama in the 1900s. Born in 1906 Smith delivered her first baby when she was only five years old, helping her cousin’s wife give birth when he left to go retrieve the midwife. She continued to learn about midwifery all through grade school. It was hard to earn money in rural Alabama as a midwife, as mothers could not always afford to pay, but she continued her work because of her love of helping others. Smith would even travel 200 miles to Tuskegee’s Andrew Memorial Hospital (one of the first hospitals ever to admit Black patients) if one of her patients needed emergency treatment. Smith was awarded the keys to her town of Eutaw, Alabama in 1983 for all of the amazing work that she did as a midwife. Along with midwifery, Smith also loved farming and she continued to farm all the way up until her death in 2004. 

Ms. Arilla Smiley

Arilla Smiley black history month breastfeeding pioneers nursing

One of the last living Granny Midwives in Georgia, Ms. Arilla Smiley followed in the midwife footsteps of her mother Georgia Williams and her grandmother Katie Jones, becoming a midwife herself in 1963. Smiley says she was called by God to become a midwife, and during her time in Mitchell County she delivered 1000 babies! Smiley was trained by the local health department in Brunswick, Georgia and apprenticed under her mother-in-law Beatrice Borders. She retired from midwifery in 1987. 

"I was called to be a midwife by God. Ms. Bea just took me along with her. If I got concerned about a birth, I’d go to quiet room and pray. You know, you have to talk to God like he’s your friend, that’s how you pray. I’d tell him, now You the One who called me to serve, I didn’t come asking, so I need your help. And He would make things alright, you’ve got to take God with you."
- Arilla Smiley

Maude Callen

Maude Callen black history month breastfeeding pioneers nursing

Maude Callen was an African American nurse and midwife born in 1898 in Quincy, Florida. She had 12 sisters and was orphaned at the age of six, after which she was raised by her uncle Dr. William J. Gunn who was a physician in Tallahassee. Callen completed her nursing course at Tuskegee Institute In Alabama in 1922. She then moved to South Carolina in 1923 where she began her practice as a nurse and midwife. She operated mainly out of her home and provided in home services to families up to 400 miles away. Callen delivered over 600 babies in her 60 years of practice. There is a famous photo taken by journalist W. Eugene Smith that shows Callen holding a baby she just delivered. The photo helped raise awareness of the value of nursing and midwifery. It sparked over $20,000 in donations to help open the Maude E. Callen clinic in 1953 which Callen ran up until her retirement in 1971. She was inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame and was presented the Order of the Palmetto by the Governor Richard W Riley. Callen dedicated her life to helping women and mothers all the way up until her death in 1990.

Mary Coley

Born in 1900, Mary Coley was one of the last generations of Granny Midwives.

Mary Coley black history month breastfeeding pioneers nursing

She was born in Baker County, Georgia where she began her training as a midwife under Onnie Lee Logan. Callen became an advocate for the health of Georgia's Black population, and was known for her work with a woman regardless of race. Alongside her duties as a midwife, Coley offered services to families such as cooking, cleaning, childminding, laundering, and helping new parents file official forms and birth certificates. “Miss Mary”, as her patients called her, delivered over 3000 babies for three decades up until her death in 1966. She was an important and influential healer, advocate for healthy babies, and a  liaison between the healthcare system and the Black community.

The Black Breastfeeding Community Today

Black women have the lowest breastfeeding initiation rates (around 64%) and the shortest breastfeeding duration (roughly 6 weeks) of all ethnic groups. The CDC states that Black women struggle to breastfeed successfully because they return earlier to work, receive less information about breastfeeding from their health-care providers, and have less access to professional support. Black breastfeeding rates are climbing today due to Black breastfeeding campaigns and resources in the Black community that provide support and information on breastfeeding. Here are some of these resources:

  • Black Women Do Breastfeeding Blog- is a blog that allows women to write stories about their breastfeeding journeys. They give support and a list of helpful resources that help support Black breastfeeding.

  • African American Breastfeeding Network- is a nonprofit organization whose mission is "to address breastfeeding  disparities by increasing awareness of the benefits and value of mother’s milk, building community allies, and de-normalizing formula use." Their vision is to live in a world where breastfeeding is the norm in African American communities.

  • Black Mothers Breastfeeding Association- is a nonprofit organization with a mission "to reduce racial inequities in breastfeeding support for Black families." They provide many helpful resources including lactation classes, informational conferences, and even a community-based doula program that provides mothers from Detroit with peer support throughout their pregnancy, during birth, and the early post-partum period.

  • National Association of Professional and Peer Lactation Supporters of Color- is a nonprofit organization focused on cultivating"a community of diverse professional and peer lactation supporters to transform communities of color through policy, breastfeeding, and skilled lactation care." Their executive board are all board certified lactation specialists that hold informational conferences to help inform and raise awareness for breastfeeding and lactation care.

The most important thing to remember about breastfeeding, regardless of your ethnicity, is that you are not alone. By sticking together and telling our stories we can help spread breastfeeding awareness and build strong communities of support!

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