Logan, Onnie Lee 1910(?)—1995
Onnie Lee Logan 1910(?)—1995
Onnie Lee Logan was an extraordinarily gifted midwife, and at the end of her more than fifty years of service, she was also one of a vanishing breed. After years of suspicion of, regulation of, and legal prohibitions against non-professional midwives, the practice regained its popularity in the 1990s. Logan’s story, in particular, attracted the interest of many people, professionals and nonspecialists alike. When still quite young, she knew that she wanted to be a midwife. Her mother was a midwife, and her grandmother was a midwife even while she was a slave.
Logan told Katherine Clark, an English professor who tape-recorded, transcribed, and edited Logan’s life story, “I’d rather see a baby born in the world than to eat if I’ m hungry. I love it. I’ m lookin at the work of God that man didn’t do and that’s somethin to think about and I enjoyed it.” Logan sought a coauthor for her story, Motherwit: An Alabama Midwife’s Story, published in 1989, focusing on her love of her midwife profession. “I got so much experience in here that I just want to explode,” she told Clark. Robert M. Thomas Jr., in The New York Times Biographical Service, wrote that the book “was widely praised both for its vivid accounts of Mrs. Logan’s life told in her distinctive vernacular and for her unflinchingly optimistic spirit in the face of pervasive adversity.”
Logan, born in Sweet Water, Alabama, figured her birth date to be around 1910, a time when accurate records were not kept for black people. Logan was the fourteenth child of sixteen born to Len and Martha Rodgers. Her parents were unusual for their day in that they owned land—a “huge plantation” Logan called it in her book—and farmed it instead of sharecropping like the other black families around them. “The brief biographies of fifteen brothers and sisters are in themselves a history of Southern rural African-Americans in the early twentieth century,” stated Bette S. Weidman in Commonweal. And so powerful is Logan’s account of life as a black woman and a licensed midwife, that editor Phyllis Rose included Logan in The Norton Book of Women’s Lives in 1993. When Rose assembled her choices, she made the decision to give more weight to the individual’s experience. She insisted that a woman with the narrative qualities of Logan had literary talent by the way she chose details to give her account and make it spirited and lucid. Logan’s was one of three oral histories included in the anthology.
The details of Logan’s childhood family, her life with the son born to her first husband—a man who forgot to tell her he had never divorced his first wife—her life after being widowed, and her life with Roosevelt Logan were woven in with her account of her work as a domestic servant for a physician’s family and her simultaneous work as a midwife. Despite the fact that Logan delivered almost every child born between 1931 to 1984 in Prichard and Crighton, the predominantly black areas of Mobile, Alabama, Logan had to work at both jobs to
Born Onnie Lee Logan, about 1910 in Sweet Water, AL; died July 10, 1995; daughter of Len and Martha Rodgers; married Roosevelt Logan; children: Johnnie Watkins.
Midwife, Mobile County, AL, 1931-1984; housekeeper, Spring Hill, AL; author, Motherwit: An Alabama Midwife’s Story, 1989.
support herself and her only child, Johnnie Watkins. She said she never complained because at that time she thought that was the way life was supposed to be, but she was later glad that life for blacks had improved.
She received her midwife permit in Mobile in 1949, quicker than any other applicants because of her almost twenty years of experience in Magnolia and the Sweet Water area. Until that time, midwives did not need to be licensed. Logan, who took classes for the permit and subsequently submitted to rigorous supervision and regulations each year from the board of health, said she had “progressed out of her own mind” two-thirds of what she knew about delivering babies. “There was a higher power and God give me wisdom. Motherwit, common sense. Wisdom come from on high. You got it and you cain’t explain how you got it yo’ self. It’s motherwit.” Logan speaks of educating the expectant parents, delivering the babies, cleaning and cooking afterwards, sewing the baby clothes, and even burying the placentas around her peach tree. She did whatever needed to be done.
In Motherwit Logan revealed her secrets, including hot wet towels to help the mother’s dilation before birth. She explains the significance of always wearing a long white gown and white cap. She tells of delivering babies whether she was paid or not paid. With her accounts she gives the reader a sense of medical and cultural history. She does not judge her experiences; she just relates what happens. For example, when a drunk white doctor harassed her and told her to go back to Africa, she replied, “I’ m not comin from or goin back to no Africa. If you want anybody to deliver babies in Africa, you go.” Logan’s confidence in her right and ability to practice midwifery was seconded by at least one doctor in Mobile who told her it was a shame that she never became a physician.
Starting in 1915 with Massachusetts, most states outlawed the practice of midwifery due to pressure by the medical profession. Doctors were convinced that the high infant mortality rate in the United States was due to “granny” midwives like Logan. Alabama, like most of the South though, was decades behind in its medical practices. Not until 1976 did Alabama outlaw lay midwives, but Logan, the last midwife in Mobile, was allowed to continue until 1984. When Logan received notice that her services were no longer needed, she was one of the last midwives in the country. Logan died in 1995. She would be pleased to know that there is once again a place for midwives in medicine.
Motherwit: An Alabama Midwife’s Story, with Katherine Clark, E. P. Dutton, 1989.
Contemporary Authors, edited by Kathleen J. Edgar. Gale Research Inc., 1996.
Logan, Onnie Lee and Katherine Clark, Motherwit: An Alabama Midwife’s Story, E. P. Dutton, 1989.
The Norton Book of Women’s Lives, edited by Phyllis Rose. W. W. Norton, 1993.
Commonweal, May 4, 1990, pp. 297-299.
Life, June 1989, pp. 19-24.
The New York Times Biographical Service, July 13, 1995, p. 1007.
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