Photo exhibit features midwives of the South


The woman rests her hand on the mothers belly, glancing at the clock on the fireplace mantel as she times the contractions.

In another photograph, shes clothed in a flowing white gown and sooths a mother in the throes of giving birth. A photograph also shows her the next day, gently washing the newborn.

The caregiver is Mary Francis Hill Coley, known as Miss Mary, a black midwife in Albany, Ga., who helped deliver more than 3,000 babies from the 1930s to the 1960s.

The photographs, which offer rare glimpses of the nurturing that black midwives once provided to their communities, are part of Reclaiming Midwives, an exhibition at the Smithsonians Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture.

Focusing on midwifery in the South dating from the 17th century on, the exhibition runs until April 2006.

Robert Galbraith took the photographs in 1952, while working as an assistant cameraman on a documentary about midwifery. For 12 weeks, the filmmakers shadowed Miss Mary as she made her rounds in the segregated town of about 31,000 people.

She was wearing her birth robe, draped in heavenly clothes like an angel, Galbraith recalls. She had a presence that was extraordinary.

He went on to become a freelance photographer, publishing work in Life magazine and elsewhere, but his portrait series of Miss Mary sat in a box for four decades in the basement of his home in Long Island, N.Y. Then, in 1995, Linda Janet Holmes, a health researcher in New Jersey and co-author of a book on black midwives, learned of the photographs from George Stoney, the documentarys director.

Medical literature in the past often reflected midwives as ignorant and backward, but these photos defied that, Holmes, guest curator of the Anacostia Museum show, tells Smithsonian magazine.

African-American midwives, sometimes called granny midwives, flourished in the South from slavery times to the 1970s because many black women were denied access to health care. As Holmes points out, townspeople held midwives in high esteem for their skills and wisdom.

For her part, Miss Mary served many other roles in her community, including spiritual advisor. She was a voice of hope and support, says her grandson, R. Bernard Coley, 54, a consultant in Palo Alto, Calif.

Miss Mary died in 1966 at age 66, but her story lives on in the photographs and the documentary All My Babies, which the Library of Congress added to its National Film Registry in 2005. The film, commissioned by the state of Georgia to teach women how to practice midwifery, was the first to cover the subject in the South, and among the first to show African-Americans as health care providers.

Bernard says, I see my grandmother as an icon for a whole lot of people whose stories have never been told.

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