You see her at the gate.
Yes, yes, she has arrived.
Midwife Sug Lampley. They called her Sugarfoot, and she is dressed all in white, 10 buttons on that starched white dress, the dress that church mothers wear. You see her right hand on the gate, her left hand carrying her bag of utensils -- surely carrying within it ointment, herbs, clean sheets, nailbrushes, tools that she will use to deliver the baby. Her head is covered in a white hat, her lips pressed together with purpose. It is not so much a sad look on her face, nor is it happy, more like the determined look of someone who must walk miles to fulfill her duty, to help guide more black babies as they drop into the world.
When you walk into the exhibit at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture, there is a sense of wonderment and awe at the number of women who worked as midwives, traveling mostly on foot across little country towns in the South to deliver thousands of black babies. Paid little or nothing to do a duty. Some illiterate, but performing the duty of doctors who would not or could not come "wait on the black babies." Midwives walked from slavery into the 1950s, delivering babies, their scrubbed, wrinkled hands catching those tiny new lives, then burying the afterbirth, keeping the fires burning and patching up the mothers.
The exhibit, "Reclaiming Midwives: Pillars of Community Support," contains photos, film, artifacts and tools of midwifery.
Organized with guest curator Linda Janet Holmes, the exhibit tries to capture the legacy of the African American midwife to keep the memory of these women from fading. The exhibit, which is accompanied by three other shows, "Mother and Child," "Conversations Among Blues Women" and "Reflections," has been extended through August.
The photos, the books, the stories collected in the exhibit are gripping -- like the hands. The hands in the photos are strong and unpretty, nails clipped, knuckles pushing out under that brown skin, fingers folded in kind of upside-down prayer as they rest in the laps of printed dresses.
And the faces stop you. You see midwife Henrietta Akins standing there in a photo dated "192?" in front of that old-fashioned wallpaper, standing there in her light tweed coat, hands at her side, ready.
And another midwife, unidentified, walking up a country lane, white apron, heavy shoes. Doesn't look much in a hurry -- babies don't come that fast -- but her walk is steady, powerful, and she is carrying that ubiquitous black bag of the midwives.
The exhibit begins with words, captured from the past: "Marser use to tell me I was a valuable slave. Dey use to come fer me both day an' night. You know it's a funny thing how babies has a way of comin' heah when it's dark." -- Mildred Graves, who was a slave and a midwife born around 1837 in Hanover County, Va.
The exhibit traces the legacy and knowledge of these women, many of them uneducated in the formal ways until new government rules in the 1920s forced them into formal training.
Before then, midwives learned what they knew through "apprenticeship, observation, oral instruction."
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."