celebrating Black birth workers of the past


February marks Black History Month. It is a time where we collectively recognize the contributions and honor the legacies of Black people past and present. This month, Ovia is celebrating birth workers who strive for equitable and just birth outcomes in the Black community.

In the U.S. Black women are three times more likely to die from birth related complications than white women. Even when Black women have high levels of education or wealth, they are still at risk — Serena Williams’ birth story is just one example of this. In a medical system where Black women’s pain is often ignored, having birth workers who know and advocate for you can be life saving. In recent years, there has been more conversation about the role of Black doulas and midwives in improving conditions for Black birthing parents and their children. A study published in The Journal of Perinatal Education showed that at-risk women who were paired with doulas had better health outcomes. These birth workers are part of a lineage of people who fought for the lives of Black mothers and children in the face of racism and discrimination throughout the decades. In the early 1900s, about half of all U.S. births included a midwife. By the 1930s, that number was down to 12.5% overall, but still around 50% for births in the Black community. Below are five women, who despite so many obstacles — including a national shift away from midwifery — made it their mission to guide Black lives earthside.

Bridget “Biddy” Mason (1818 - 1891)

In 1872, Bridget “Biddy” Mason founded First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles. She is also known as one of the first Black real estate moguls in the city. Born into slavery in the American South, Mason learned midwifery from other women on the plantation when she was a teenager. Eventually, the family that enslaved Mason moved to California where, in 1856 she petitioned for and won her freedom. Over the years, she continued to work as a nurse & midwife. Known in her community as Auntie Mason or Grandma Mason, she also founded a school and daycare for Black children.

Onnie Lee Logan (1910 - 1995)

Onnie Lee Logan, born in Marengo County, AL, was one of 16 children. She followed in her mother’s footsteps and became a midwife when she was in her 20s. While lay midwives were banned in Alabama in 1976, Mrs. Logan practiced until 1984. According to her obituary in the New York Times, Mrs. Logan “delivered virtually every child born in the predominantly Black suburb of Prichard from 1931-1984.” She shared her life story in her book, Motherwit: An Alabama Midwife’s Story.

Mary Francis Hill Coley (1910 - 1966)

In 1953, the release of All My Babies: A Midwife’s Own Story, introduced audiences to Mary Francis Hill Coley, known as Miss Mary and her work caring for mothers and babies in the rural south. Trained in midwifery by Onnie Lee Logan, Coley spent more than three decades as a midwife and delivered more than 3,000 babies. Once the children were born, Miss Mary would often stay a few days helping the family with chores around the house and making sure they handled the necessary paperwork.

Margaret Charles Smith (1906 - 2004)

Three weeks after Margaret Charles Smith was born, her mother died. Eventually, Smith’s life would be dedicated to caring for mothers and their babies. She received her license to practice midwifery in 1949, but she’d been delivering children decades before. According to Smith, she caught her first baby at age five. In 1996, she co-authored Listen to Me Good: The Life Story of an Alabama Midwife.

Gladys Milton (1924 - 1999)

During her time as a midwife, Gladys Milton delivered about 3,000 babies. She received her license to practice midwifery in 1959. In the early part of her career, Milton provided care mothers in their homes, but in 1976 founded what is now known as the Milton Memorial Birthing Center. In the 80s, Milton’s clinic was attacked by arsonists in response to her being a vocal proponent of keeping traditional midwifery legal in Florida. She documented in her story in two memoirs, Why Not Me? The Story of Gladys Milton and Beyond the Storm: An Extraordinary Journey.