Roots of Resistance
The slave midwife as an agent of slave resistance in the Antebellum South
Francis Federic escaped his Virginia plantation in the early 19th century after a failed attempt and ultimately found himself in Canada. In a narrated autobiography, he recalls a time in his youth as a slave that he decided to feign illness in the plantation house. He sprawled himself on the floor, groaning loudly, until a black woman rushed into the room to treat him. As the woman hastily began to rub his legs and assess his condition, the mistress entered the room. Skeptical, she drove a pin into him to see what’s what. Francis Federic broke character, howling in pain. The act was up.
But the scenario he paints during his feigned illness is a significant one. The black woman who entered first, likely a slave midwife, was an important character in the landscape of slave medical treatment. Symbolic is the speed at which she came to his aid; the slave midwife was by and large the primary responder to any sort of medical issues for slaves on the plantation. But her role in the American Antebellum South extended far past her role as a practitioner. By studying written records and oral histories of slaves, particularly from the Works Progress Administration-commissioned Slave Narratives, we can interrogate the place that the slave midwife held in the landscape of Antebellum plantation medicine and then use that context to argue that slave midwives were critical agents of resistance to the institution of slavery. While they did not participate in the active resistance of slave revolts or even hold any sort of vocal platform against slavery, the midwives carved a niche for themselves at the intersection of slave trust and slavemaster trust. This, in turn, allowed them to aid in the resistance of the slave body by aiding in the reproductive autonomy of female slaves, the resistance of slave culture by upholding alternative routes to medical treatment, and the resistance of slave science by inadvertently forcing the corpus of African American medical knowledge into professional white discourse.
Unpacking the role the slave midwife played in the upkeep of black agency in the Antebellum South requires first defining her roles and then carving out her space in the Southern plantation. First and foremost, the slave midwife was involved in childbirth. Birthing new bondspeople, from a largely economic standpoint, was a predominant role of women in a plantation. Moreover, the slave midwife was present in the slave quarters to assist in the process. A former slave, Margaret, remembers a midwife on their Georgia plantation named Granny Phoebe who “birthed all the babies.” Interestingly, the role of the midwife in assisting with childbirth was not confined to the black plantation community. White women, too, largely appreciated the help of slave midwives in their spheres of childbirth. “I was a midwife myself,” recalls former slave midwife Nancy, “to black and white.” White women and black women on the plantation were able to find a common antagonist in the white physician, who was, by the mid 19th century, increasingly attempting to encroach into the sphere of childbirth that had historically been viewed a space exclusively accessible to women by societal standards of decency. Within physician communities, the doctors openly griped about “how many useful lives [were] either destroyed or rendered miserable through false notions of modesty.” However, the slave midwife remained, largely due to those very constructs of modesty that rejected white physicians, a critical part of plantation childbirth.
Slave midwifery, to be clear, was more than an internal institution within the slave community of the plantation. Rather, it was quite officially acknowledged by the slaveowner and was a specified role for a slave. That means, then, that the slave midwife held a legitimate position in the hierarchy of slave medical treatment, and was viewed as a viable and often highly effective source of healing for slaves by the slaveholder. “De Thomson doctors all liked me,” recalled Nancy, “and tole people to “git Nancy.” Midwives were usually utilized by slave owners to treat smaller, more regular maladies that could easily be addressed with the herbal medicines of a slave midwife.
“One had to be mighty sick,” said former slave Mr. Eason, before “a doctor was employed.”
Physicians were called for more urgent cases that required acute, interventional medicine, such as bone-setting. But, as the slave narratives mentioned make abundantly clear, the great majority of medical cases on a plantation never made it into the diaries of a white physician. The slave midwife, then, held a very legitimate and delineated role in the protocol for treated an unwell slave.
Moreover, her profession was one that held distinct, quasi-professional boundaries in the context of the slave medical theater. Several other agents held stake in the in-house treatment for slaves, and it is important to not only define who the slave midwife was, but also who she was not before interrogating her contributions to slave resistance. The mistress of the plantation — the wife of the slaveowner — was an integral part of the primary care of slave treatment. When Francis Fedric feigned his illness, it was the mistress who ran to his aid along with the midwife. The role of the mistresses was to mediate between the slave midwifery and the need for higher levels of medical treatment by white physicians. Largely, she would work in unison with slave midwives to see to it that slaves were being treated promptly, and often heeded the advice of the slave midwife and used slave herbal remedies gleaned from the midwives in assisting in treatment. The slave midwife was also distinct from the plantation conjuror. Conjurors, slaves themselves, took on a spiritual role in the healing process whose contours were predominantly drawn out by spirituality and ritualism. The conjurors largely operated on moral dilemmas of slaves, such as the feeling of being wronged or fooled, or if they felt that some sort of punishment for their actions was imminent. Additionally, the conjurors were consulted by slaves in instances when the herbal remedies of the midwife did not seem to be having an appreciable effect on the body. However, the conjuror did not seem to substantially encroach on the domain of the midwife, and the two roles largely operated in tandem to one another.
Claiming that the slave midwife was integral to slave resistance requires first operationally defining that resistance. The resistance proffered by slave midwives was not resistance in the sense of any active form of protest. Slave revolt or a sociocultural upheaval of the slave system was not a conscious end to the means of slave midwifery. Their work was not resistance that was prosecuted or punished. Slave midwifery was, as demonstrated, not only allowed but moreover encouraged by slaveholders as a functional component of the plantation and a legitimate rung on the ladder of slave medical treatment. David Arnold defines resistance as “an active and not altogether unwelcome principle of negation.” Indeed, the slave midwives, consciously and unconsciously, used their knowledge both of medical treatment and black culture to resist slavery in the sense of pushing back against white culture and white science and white values to form a pocket in the plantation in which black culture was able to dwell and sustain. Slave midwives resisted the power of white culture and white techno-social invasion by propping up institutions that allowed slave bodies and slave communities to preserve some level of agency.
An important function of the female black body in the eyes of a plantation owner was the ability to give birth to new bondspeople, moreover appending value to the slaveowner’s initial investment. Slaveowners were very aware that there was an economic benefit to purchasing a young woman of birthing age, and it was moreover critical that the slave functioned to that reproductive end. Indeed, slave auction documents show that younger female slaves were marked and marketed as “Prime” to boost their appeal — and moreover their prices — to potential bidders. If we are to define this reproductive ability as a function of young female slaves, and state moreover that slave reproduction contributed to the institution of Southern slavery by following through with the purpose of the slaveowners’ investment, then the slave midwife played an integral role in resisting this function through her assistance with abortion for slave women.
Midwives were critical to the prevalence of abortion on slave plantations. Through herbal prescriptions, midwives instructed slave women on how to prevent conception and successful births. In doing so, they developed novel technologies of abortion that were initially entirely unknown to white physicians. It is unconstructive to study the innovation of midwives for abortion without contextualizing that science within the landscape of medical science at the time. While obstetrics was certainly an instructed field by the mid-19th century, white physicians were still struggling to cut through notions of modesty and enter the sphere of childbirth at any legitimate level. Moreover, knowledge of the female reproductive system was substantially stunted in relation to other physiological systems. “It is impossible…to treat abortion on scientific principles,” proclaimed the New Orleans Medical Journal based on a series of lectures by Dr. Robert Lee, “without an intimate knowledge of the structure, functions, and diseases of the human ovum.” In light of limited knowledge of the female reproductive system at the clinical level, the herbal treatments put forth by midwives were largely mysterious to plantation owners and only slowly apparent to physicians. William Coleman, a former Tennessee slave, remembers that
“it was a long time before the masters discovered what the slave women were doing.”
Cotton root was a primary abortifacient used by midwives on plantations and was widespread knowledge to midwives across the Antebellum South. Women would chew it as a form of birth control as demonstrated through the corpus of oral knowledge preserved by slave midwives. So widespread was this form of birth control that the treatment found its way into the official correspondences of Southern practitioners as physicians in the New Orleans Journal of Medicine noted its “specific effect on the uterine organs.” Other medications for birth control disseminated by slave midwives included “calomel, turpentine, and indigo raised in the garden.”
Since the space of the childbirth was just as taboo to men in white culture as it were in black culture, both the slaveowners and the white physicians were able to learn little about what practices of resistance occurred in that space. Largely, the prevalence of abortion in slave communities was left to speculation for those outside of the slave and slave midwife relationship. One doctor made the curious observation of “whole families of women who fail to have any children.” Slaveowners balked at the idea of reduced returns on their investments and attempted to set in place harsh punishments for abortion in hopes of discouraging the practice among their female slaves. Any slave “caus[ing] to be administered any drug or substance causing abortion,” a 1748 Virginia law declared, “shall receive thirty-nine lashes, and for a second offense suffer death without benefit of clergy.” Interestingly, the law seemed more interested in those aiding in the abortion rather than the childbearing woman herself. However, the threat of punishment seemed not to faze many black women. Referring to anti-abortion legislation imposed by their white slaveowners, former slave Anna Lee reflected that it
“did not help much…cause when slavery was ended they was not being any new slaves born, we had done quit breeding.”
This sentiment of fearlessness in the resistance of the black body stemmed largely from the fact that it was ultimately incredibly difficult for the slave owners to regulate birth control at any significant level. For one, the herbal treatments prescribed by the midwives were simple to hide and use. As Texas ex-slave William Byrd recalls, women “would slip out at night and get them a lot of cotton roots and bury them under their quarters.” Even with harsh punishments set out by slave masters once they caught onto the cotton roots, it was far too easy to chew the root in the privacy of the slave quarters that any enforcement of the rule was largely ineffective. But, beyond providing information, the slave midwives played a broader role in the reproductive resistance of slavery by serving as the sinks of discreet knowledge of the childbirth space in the slave quarters. The midwives, responsible for mediating between the health of the slaves and the knowledge of the slave master and mistress regarding that health, kept silent about crucial admissions of abortion within their community. Moreover, they took advantage of the trust afforded to them by the slave masters to effectively perform procedures of reproductive resistance. Caroline Neely makes the point that the anecdotally-based fear of such practices for slave masters was resistance in and of itself by necessarily posing “a direct threat to their authority” and therefore pushing back against the absolute power of the white plantation owner.
This slave midwife-mediated resistance against the institution of slavery expanded beyond a defense of the body. At the cultural level, slave midwives provided a sense of resistance to their community by way of offering an alternate medical system that granted the slave society some level of medical autonomy. From the perspective of the slave master, the slaves had no medical consent. While the intentions of this absolute authority, which could have stemmed from a mix of capitalist shrewdness and a more complacent and religiously-entrenched sense of paternalism, are still actively contested by academics, it is universally accepted that the owners sought to exercise complete control over the lives, productivity, and consumption of the slaves. They actively kept a watch on the slave population and wanted access to all information and decisions made by and on behalf of the slaves.
“If you got sick,” remembers Missouri ex-slave Edward Taylor, “de doctor tell you not to lie to the old Marse of old Miss and you git all right.”
When slaves fell ill, it was the slavemaster and the overseer, along with the mistress oftentimes, who would decide whether the “conditions warranted” a visit by the doctor, or if the ailment could be treated in-house by the slave midwives. And so to the slavemasters, even the presence of midwives as a form of treatment was an extension of their control, and therefore contributed to their power on the plantation.
The slave midwives, however, held a de facto power over the routes of slave medical treatment that extended far past the reach of the slavemasters or the physicians. For one, the midwives were trusted members of the community that not only held membership in slave society, but were largely central to it. The midwives, as a group, were elderly women who were responsible for passing down black traditions and knowledge in an almost entirely functionally illiterate population. In fact, another term for the midwives were “granny midwives” and one of the popular physician complaints about their practice was that it seemed to be that “old age [should not] be their only qualification.” As some of the senior most slaves on the plantation, their presence was central to the communal identity of the slave population.
This position of trust by both the slaves and the slave masters gave the slave midwives a unique space in which they could navigate the imposed medical authority of the slaveowner via the physician and create a form of medical autonomy for the slave society to culturally white treatments. From the perspective of the slavemasters, the slaves had no consent to medical treatment. However, those slaves could ultimately maintain some level of control over the treatment they consumed because of the alternative treatment options made accessible to them by the slave midwife. To this end, many slaves who were attended by trained physicians ended up discarding those treatments given to them in preference of the herbal treatments of the midwives, much to the chagrin of the physician community. As one South Carolina physician noted in exasperation, “his prescriptions were thrown out the window” in favor of the “concoctions” of the African American healer on the plantation. So substantial was this frustration surrounding the physicians’ inability to crack through the bubble of slave community healing that their concerns became vocal in their official correspondences. “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” quotes a physician lecture on the interference of midwives here in the process of childbirth. That a population as disenfranchised and de jure powerless as the slave midwives were able to draw such legitimate irritation out of the population of formally trained physicians speaks volumes to their ability to override the American heroic medicine they prescribed, instead supplanting them with treatments that were culturally familiar to slaves.
Along with granting a level of autonomy and quasi-consumerism to black bodies seeking medical treatment, slave midwives offered an intellectual resistance to white American science by forcing formally trained physicians to discuss slave herbal medicine in what considered to be a more legitimate setting: professional medical discourse. While slaveowners may have initially ruled out slave medicine as hand-wavy and ritualistic, its prevalence on the plantation through midwives made it necessary to understand, if only out of economic logic. The cotton root, for instance, was thrust into biomedical scrutiny simply out of necessity on the part of slavemasters to wring maximal returns out of their investment. Abortion was increasingly “very prevalent…there being herbs and powders known to slaves [about which] the white medical men know little,” expressed a concerned Reverend Henry Bean in 1826. There became a nascent urgency to take the claims of slave midwives and their herbal treatments very seriously to regain management of the plantation. Albeit indirectly, African American medicine was given a biomedical voice, and moreover slave culture was given an intellectual platform.
African American herbal treatments began to appear in Southern medical journals alongside American drugs, and their properties were scrutinized with the same scientific treatment as any other pill or simple. The New Orleans Journal of Medicine, for instance, profiles the Sessamum Indicum for treating bowel irritation and skin diseases. The medicine, “originally introduced from Africa by the negroes,” is characterized in a list alongside emetics and diuretics available for the physician to use. But the study of slave medicine by formal physicians was not limited to understanding with intent to oppress. Many physicians saw genuine value in the treatments and sought to expand the toolkit of the physician. While black bodies were certainly racialized and viewed as physiologically distinct from white bodies, the ontology of disease was more prominently viewed in the context of place among American medical correspondences. Moreover, it was not so unreasonable to estimate the efficacy of a black medicine on the white body insofar as the two bodies shared the same place, and climate and humidity and surrounding flora and airs that came with it. So prevalent was slave medicine that plantation owners would openly appropriate the knowledge of the slave midwives for their own health. “We wore little sacks of asafetida around our necks to keep off diseases,” remembers Georgia ex-slave Minnie Davis, referring to a popular slave preventative tradition, “and white folks wore it too.”
Slave midwives, by contributing agency to slave bodies and slave culture, played a critical role in carving out space for slaves to somewhat preserve autonomy and values. They served as pillars of the slave community; not only were they central to the culture of the slaves on the plantation through the maintenance of oral traditions in a wholly illiterate community, but they also held up the agency of slaves against the forces of white physical, cultural, and intellectual propriety that sought to flatten the community and culture of slaves on the plantation into little more than capital investments. Uncredited, they elbowed their way into the early American medical landscape through an unbridled tenacity for the preservation of their culture and their community. The slave midwife that came to the aid of Francis Federic resisted slavery not by slitting the throat of the mistress that followed, but by holding her place in the room and silently treating him with the knowledge of her grandmother.
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