URI historian examines midwifery and medical men during slavery

KINGSTON, R.I.-December 1, 1998 — Call URI’s Dr. Marie Jenkins Schwartz of Wakefield a midwife to history. She is helping to deliver new information about the history of midwifery and the introduction of medical men into the management of slave childbirths in the south from 1820 to 1860. “It’s telling a different story,” says Schwartz from her office in URI’s History Department. “It will correct an imbalance in the existing literature on the subject, which relies on the records of slaveholders and medical practitioners to the virtual exclusion of slave sources.” Schwartz’s study will consider the goals and aspirations of the slaves in managing childbirth, as well as those doctors who attempted to supplant traditional practices. “Slave sources are scattered. I feel like a detective,” says the social historian who finds uncovering documents and discovering bits of information both exciting and rewarding. Recent media attention has focused on slave paternity. Improved technology has made clear that Thomas Jefferson had at least one child with his slave, Sally Hemings. Schwartz is surprised that some historians were surprised by the DNA findings. Although slave men fathered most slave children, it was not unusual for slave masters to have children with their slaves. Schwartz says some historians are taking a closer look at George Washington. Although the father of our country had a childless marriage with Martha, there could well be some Washington descendants who can trace their roots to the Washington family tree. But Schwartz’s study does not focus on conception but on birth. Slaves were valuable property, and slave owners were interested in the best possible management of that property. When a problem birth was anticipated, medical men were called in to ensure a successful outcome. The motive appears humane-better health care for mother and child, but “there was an element of coercion.” Schwartz says slave women were often resistant, hiding their pregnancies or not reporting labor thereby maintaining some power over their bodies. Some of the techniques practiced by physicians who attended childbirths were no more effective than those employed by midwives. More important, physicians did not understand traditional practices and simply did not have the skills slaves deemed essential in a childbirth attendant. Midwives, who were slaves themselves, shared with their patients a culture that medical men didn’t understand. For instance, births involving twins or babies born with the embryonic sac over their faces were believed to require special rituals. The midwife would boil the sac into a tea, which would be fed to the child. Trained medical professionals had no knowledge of such procedures. The URI assistant professor is basing her study on a diverse number of records, ranging from interviews with former slaves conducted by government and university agents during the 1930s, fugitive slave narratives, plantation records, memoirs and correspondence of slaveholders, medical dissertations and records, and popular medical literature. Schwartz says even agriculture journals can be a rich source since they published articles on the management of slave “property.” To further her search, Schwartz was recently awarded one of two $5,000 1999 fellowships in the History of American Obstetrics and Gynecology, given jointly each year by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and Ortho Pharmaceutical Corp. Schwartz will spend a month next summer in Washington, D.C., researching medical literature and records. Schwartz was a Ph.D. student during the late 1980s at the University of Maryland interested in family and children when she enrolled in a seminar comparing peasant, slave, and wage labor systems. Surprised to learn that half of the four million slaves who lived in the South on the eve of the Civil War were under 16 years old, Schwartz invariably became interested in slavery, family, and the United States in the 19th Century. A two-time recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship, Schwartz is in the process of completing a manuscript “Born In Bondage: Growing Up Enslaved in the Antebellum South,” in addition to this project entitled “Medical Men and Midwives: Managing Slave Childbirth.” -xxx- For More Information: Jan Sawyer, 401-874-2116