Childbirth and Midwifery

views updated

Childbirth and Midwifery

Slave women who became pregnant had few reasons to celebrate. If they were fortunate enough to be married and wanting a child, they would have precious little time to spend with their baby; if they were part of a slaveholder's breeding program, they were subjected to repeated rape or forced sex and became pregnant again and again. Midwives provided the best care they could when attending deliveries, but given the limited nature of that care, many slave women died soon after giving birth. Slavery drained positive emotions from the experience of pregnancy and childbirth.

Female slaves used for breeding were treated better than other female slaves and had the advantage of a lighter workload and supplementary food. It was in the slaveholder's interest to make sure "the issuance" was healthy, and to keep the breeding female as strong and vigorous as possible. They were allowed more time to recuperate after birth and spent more time with their newborns as well, though these prized offspring were auction-bound from a young age. For breeding women, this cycle repeated itself until they were too worn out to have more children, their infants were no longer robust, or they died in childbirth. Josephine Howell, a slave from Brinkley, Arkansas, recalled that her grandmother was "a cook and a breeding woman … They prized her high. She had twenty-one children" (Born in Slavery, vol. 2, pt. 7, p. 339).

Other female slaves who became pregnant received no special treatment and little or no care during their pregnancies. They were required to carry on with their chores and keep to their usual schedule of working from dawn to dusk, whether or not they had morning sickness or complications. Women who cooked, cleaned, or were personal servants sometimes had better circumstances but were always at the beck and call of their slaveholders.

For breeding women, there might be an actual medical doctor, but most pregnant slaves relied on midwives or fellow female slaves. Midwifery skills were often passed from mother to daughter, or, because so many families were separated, from an elder to young women. Male midwives were rare. Some slave midwives were taught by white physicians so they could tend to their own, but most used homemade remedies such as special drinks, salves, and compresses made from plants and herbs. Skilled midwives were able to service a number of homesteads for pay, treating both slaves and white women, and could earn good money. But it was not unusual for slave women, overworked and underfed, to die in childbirth or soon after. These deaths notwithstanding, some believed slave women received better care than did poor white women. George Fitzhugh, a proponent of slavery, citing the death of a poor white woman who could not afford a midwife's fee, argued that, "had the woman been a slave, her offspring would have been worth something, and, of course, her safety secured" (Fitzhugh 1857, p. 233).

A female slave's worth was directly tied to how well she produced—either children as a breeder or services as a worker. Thus, after giving birth, slave mothers were usually forced back to work after a short resting period. Some plantations, especially those with cotton ready for picking, allowed new mothers only two to three days to recuperate. If a slave mother encountered complications, in most cases she was given more leave and bed rest. If she could not return to her former state of usefulness, she was generally sold. Charles Sackett Sydnor, a former slave, wrote about the birthing experience in his memoir of slave life in Mississippi: "Negro women were too valuable in the field to be allowed much time to care for their children. A month or so after the birth of a child, the mother returned to her task. Thereafter the child was cared for during the day by the plantation nurse, who was generally a woman too old for work" (1933, p. 64).

All plantations and homesteads had some sort of nursery, usually within the slave quarters, tended by older women or young slave children between the ages of six and eleven who were being taught how to rear infants and toddlers. According to Sydnor, nursing mothers "returned to the nursery three or four times each day, which of course cut down their field work about one half, depending largely on the distance from the field where work was in progress to the quarters. To save this lost time, in good weather the flock of infants might be brought to the field and cared for by the plantation nurse under one of the weather shacks" (1933, p. 65). Other slaveholders allowed new mothers in from the field only two or three times per day to nurse, depending on the crop and harvest schedules. During harvest time, old women carried newborns out to the fields to nurse, mothers carried them in slings, or visited nearby shacks for quick feedings.


Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936–1938. Manuscript and Prints and Photographs Divisions, Library of Congress. Arkansas Narratives, vol. 2, part 7. Available from

Fitzhugh, George. Cannibals All! or, Slaves without Masters. Richmond, VA: V. Morris, 1857. (Repr., ed. C. Vann Woodward, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1960.)

Sydnor, Charles Sackett. Slavery in Mississippi. New York and London: Appleton-Century, 1933.

                                        Nelson Rhodes

About this article

Childbirth and Midwifery

Updated About content Print Article