Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Fall/105i/Section 50/Lavinia McKee

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Lavinia McKee
Borncirca 1875
Beaufort County, South Carolina, U.S.A.
DiedUnknown
ResidencePort Royal Island, Beaufort County, South Carolina, U.S.A.
Other namesSusie Blake in the Federal Writers' Project Papers
OccupationMidwife

Overview[edit | edit source]

Lavinia McKee (born circa 1875) was a Black midwife in Beaufort County, South Carolina during the Great Depression. She was interviewed by Chlotilde R. Martin for the Federal Writers' Project in 1939.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Lavinia McKee was a Black woman born around 1875 in Beaufort Country, South Carolina, in the Sea-Island region along the Atlantic Coast.[1] Her father was enslaved on a rice plantation along the Savannah River.[2] Her mother, aunt, and grandmother were enslaved midwives.[3] Her father left her mother when she was six months old. She lived with her father. Her mother had three more children with another man. McKee married her husband at 19 and had two sons and a daughter.[4] She also adopted six children.[5] The names of her family members are unknown.

At the time of Federal Writers’ Project interview, McKee lived in a two-story house on her 45-acre family farm on Port Royal Island.[6] She lived with her husband, grandson, and youngest adopted daughter. Aside from her youngest daughter, all of her children were married and lived in their own homes. Her birth daughter moved to New York. Her birth sons moved to New Jersey.[7]

Black Midwife in her home in Greene County, Georgia in 1941

McKee worked as a midwife. Her mother, aunt, and grandmother taught her about traditional Black midwifery. She started practicing by attending births with her aunt. She worked with a partner, whose identity is unknown, and they charged $10.00 per birth. She also attended medical classes taught by the White public health nurse.[8]

McKee was tall, muscular, and kind.[9]

Her date of death is unknown.

African-American midwifery[edit | edit source]

Black Midwifery Traditions and Spirituality[edit | edit source]

When African women were first taken to the New World, they adapted traditional West African birthing practices in order to birth babies on plantations. Spiritual traditions tied to birthing became an integral part of the broader Hoodoo system. Hoodoo is an African-American spiritual system of beliefs, practices, and traditions created during slavery, combining African spiritualities with life in the new world. Hoodoo midwives were highly regarded members of their community.[10]

According to the book Mojo Workin’: The Old African American Hoodoo System by Katrina Hazzard-Donald, “Through prayer, incantation, potions, amulets, sacred objects, procedures, and rituals, [midwives] treated and safeguarded the birthing woman’s heightened spiritual vulnerability.”[11] Through these practices, midwives attended to both the physical and spiritual aspects of childbirth.

Attending to the physical aspect, midwives would give pregnant women tansy and mud dauber nest tea to induce or speed up labor. They also eased the pregnant woman’s pain by secretly placing a sharp object, commonly an an axe or knife, under the bed or having them blow into a bottle coated with sulphur and lard.[12]

Attending to the spiritual aspect, some midwives would plant three brand new nails at the home's entrance to ward off evil spirits. If the infant died during or shortly after birth, midwives would advise mothers on specific rituals to prevent the death of her next child. To ensure the strength of the baby, some midwives tied strings around the baby's wrists and ankles. Babies who were immediately placed under the birthing bed by the midwife were guaranteed to be good children. Children who were born with a caul over their heads were believed to have a “second sight,” a power that could be used for good or evil. To counteract this power, midwives could feed the dried caul baked into bread to the child when they are older.[13]

Black midwives learned their practice through apprenticing with older midwives, often in their family. The apprenticing midwife would follow her mentor on birthing visits, assisting with sewing and cleaning. Once the apprentice has had their own first child and has been accompanying their mentor for a few years, she is allowed to help with delivering babies and can attend late-night calls in place of her mentor. When the mentoring midwife retired, she officially passed her practice down to her apprentice. This tradition of apprenticeship allowed for the practices of traditional Black midwifery to be maintained across generations.[14]

Discrimination Against Black Midwives[edit | edit source]

Midwife packing her bag to attend a call (1941)

By the early 20th century, around 50% of all births, included those of White women, were attended by Black midwives.[15] As respect for Black midwives grew, white male doctors worked to push Black women out of child birthing through a racist network of legal regulation, propaganda, and sanitation codes.[16]

In order to enact policy reform to exclude Hoodoo practicing Black midwives, White doctors spread propaganda to demonize their rituals. They painted Black midwifery as unsanitary, contrary to science, dangerous, and barbaric. In his 1915 speech entitled “Progress Towards Ideal Obstetrics,” Dr. Joseph DeLee, an influential 20th century obstetrician, declared the following:

The midwife is a relic of barbarism. In civilized countries the midwife is wrong, has always been wrong … The midwife has been a drag on the progress of the science and art of obstetrics. Her existence stunts the one and degrades the other. For many centuries she perverted obstetrics from obtaining any standing at all among the science of medicine … Even after midwifery was practiced by some of the most brilliant men in the profession, such practice was held opprobrious and degraded.[17]

As a result, the South Carolina Sanitary Codes, enforced by the South Carolina State Board of Health, established a medical hierarchy that suppressed and criminalized the work of Black midwives practicing Hoodoo. White nurses were officially deemed more medically authoritative than Black midwives, and were appointed to teach medical courses and supervise their practices. These courses and supervisions were mandated for all South Carolina midwives. Nurses frequently inspected Black midwives’ bags and could suspend their practice for up to six months if the bags were found to be insufficient or included Hoodoo remedies. State appointed nurses could also revoke the midwifery certificates of Black midwives that allowed them to practice.[18] Between 1922 and 1932, the number of Black midwives practicing South Carolina was reduced from 6,000 to 3,000.[19]

Upon graduation from midwifery classes, Black midwives would perform in plays that displayed the differences between old Hoodoo midwives and medically-educated midwives, asserting the latter's superiority. These plays, written entirely by White nurses and doctors, forced midwives to denounce their former practices. Many midwives performed in these plays because they understood that in order continue attending childbirths, they needed the approval of licensed White medical professionals.[20]

References[edit | edit source]

Footnotes[edit | edit source]

  1. "Midwifery not what it used to be" by Chlotilde Martin, in the Federal Writers' Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1.
  2. Ibid, 5.
  3. Ibid, 7.
  4. Ibid, 5-6.
  5. Ibid, 8.
  6. Ibid, 3, 10.
  7. Ibid, 6, 9.
  8. Ibid, 7.
  9. Ibid, 3.
  10. Katrina Hazzard-Donald, Mojo Workin’: The Old African American Hoodoo System," (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2012), 138.
  11. Ibid, 139.
  12. "Midwifery not what it used to be" by Chlotilde Martin, in the Federal Writers' Project papers #3709, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1-2.
  13. Ibid, 2.
  14. Katrina Hazzard-Donald, Mojo Workin’: The Old African American Hoodoo System," 137.
  15. Anonymous, “The Black Birthing Body,” Medium, December 13, 2018.
  16. Tanfer E Tunc, “The Mistress, the Midwife, and the Medical Doctor: pregnancy and childbirth on the plantations of the antebellum American South, 1800–1860,” Women’s History Review 19, no. 3 (2010), Taylor & Francis Online.
  17. Michele Goodwin, “The Racist History of Abortion and Midwifery Bans,” American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, July 1, 2020.
  18. Alicia D. Bonaparte, “‘The Satisfactory Midwife Bag’: Midwifery Regulation and South Carolina, Past and Present Considerations,” Social Science History 38, no. 1-2 (2014): 169.
  19. Ibid, 172.
  20. Ibid, 170.

Sources[edit | edit source]

Anonymous. “The Black Birthing Body.” Medium. Last modified December 13, 2018. https://medium.com/midwifery-around-the-world/the-black-birthing-body-abd0061bf1e.

Bonaparte, Alicia D. “‘The Satisfactory Midwife Bag’: Midwifery Regulation and South Carolina, Past and Present Considerations.” Social Science History 38, no. 1-2 (2014): 155-182, https://www.jstor.org/stable/90017027.

Goodwin, Michele. “The Racist History of Abortion and Midwifery Bans.” American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. Last modified July 1, 2020. https://www.aclufl.org/en/news/racist-history-abortion-and-midwifery-bans.

Hazzard-Donald, Katrina. Mojo Workin’: The Old African American Hoodoo System." Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2012.

"Midwifery not what it used to be" by Chlotilde Martin, in the Federal Writers' Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Tunc, Tanfer E. “The Mistress, the Midwife, and the Medical Doctor: pregnancy and childbirth on the plantations of the antebellum American South, 1800–1860.” Women’s History Review 19, no. 3 (2010): 395-419, Taylor & Francis Online.