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The Midwife's Art, Born of Necessity

Some said they were "called" to be midwives through dreams, signs, visions.

Many saw their jobs as a ministry, and even after slavery, they were paid little or nothing for their services.

"These people did not have no money," the voice of a midwife says from a recording.

"They was only paying $5 to deliver a baby. So I delivered a lot of babies for $5."

Some midwives, according to the exhibit, used traditions from Africa for cures. They buried the placenta. They kept fires burning when the birthing mother was secluded. In those black bags, they often carried roots and herbs: blackhaw, peppermint, May apple, spearmint, ginger root -- and lard, with which to rub the expectant mother's belly.

"As recently as 1950, these midwives cared for as many as 50 percent of all black babies born in some southern states," the exhibit says.

One study revealed that the presence of a midwife helped to reduce the infant mortality rate in some counties.

They were called wise women, but their roles were threatened by regulation and often governments that tried to eliminate the role of the midwife.

The Smithsonian says, as a result, "Theirs is a lost institution. What remains is only a fragment of a traditional midwifery system that once was practiced and controlled by black women."

The exhibit is an effort to capture that respect. Recordings and film preserve the methods and the voices.

"I could tell you whether you could have your baby on your back or on your feet or on your knees," says one midwife in a recording.

"A lot of people used to use a chair, but I don't think chairs are comfortable. A lot of people use a bucket, but I think when the baby comes he might fall and he might bust his head."

Another voice: "When the baby coming to the world, I don't let the mother push too hard because pushing too hard can make the mother pass."

"I remember my great-grandmother, too," says Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison in a printed interview within the exhibit. "Her husband died before I was born, but I remember that whenever my great-grandmother walked into a room, her grandsons and her nephews stood up. The women in her family were very, very articulate. Of course, my great-grandmother could not read, but she was a midwife and people from all over the state came to her for advice and for her to deliver babies. They came for other kinds of medical care, too. Yes, I feel the authority of those women more than I do my own."

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