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Enduring echoes.

The exhibition "Reclaiming Midwives: Pillars of Community Support" was on view at the Smithsonian Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture in Washington, DC from November 14, 2005 until August 6, 2006. I was privileged to visit this extraordinary exhibit in June 2006, and was thrilled that Georgia was well represented in photographs and documents that reflected African American contributions to community history and continuity. The film All My Babies was prominently heralded as an important documentary because of the quality of the film, but also because it depicted "granny" midwives in a positive light at a time when the medical establishment was trying to abolish them from practicing.

The exhibit brochure devotes an entire page to the film All My Babies including a photograph from the film by Robert Galbraith showing the midwife featured in the film bathing a one-day old infant. Linda Janet Holmes (2005), Guest Curator of the exhibit wrote this about All My Babies.
 A midwife training film produced for the
 Medical Audio-Visual Institute of the Association
 of American Medical Colleges and the Georgia
 Health Department in 1952 is an unparalleled
 exception to the trend to downgrade midwives.
 All My Babies: A Midwife's Own Story transmits
 skills to lay midwives in a respectful way. Named
 in 2002 to the National Film Registry List
 (Library of Congress), the film features Albany,
 Georgia, midwife Mary Francis Hill Coley (1900-
 1966) and has traveled as far as India to train
 midwives. In the film, Coley is more than a
 standard bearer for public health officials; she
 personifies the care and sensitivity of so many
 great-grandmothers, grandmothers, aunts, and
 cousins--midwives who folk say "got us here."
 She transmits confidence and steadfastness to
 the mothers she helps.

 Trained through apprenticeship in the mid-1930s,
 Coley helped thousands of birthing
 mothers in the counties of Dougherty, Lee,
 Mitchell and Worth, Georgia. Never driving,
 Coley often walked miles to a birth. "Miss Mary,"
 as the community knew her, also made daily
 walks back to a mother's home, sometimes for
 weeks, to assist mothers with a myriad of chores
 including helping with the children, bathing the
 mother, and changing the linen. Whether paid
 her standard fee of $5.00 (later $10) or not, Coley
 gave continuously and graciously of her services;
 she was also a Sunday School teacher and served
 as the President of the Women's Auxiliary in the
 Church of the Kingdom of God. Prior to the civil
 rights movement rocking Albany at the end of
 the 1950s, Coley was a powerful bridge between
 the white-controlled public health system and
 the black community. Even amid deeply
 entrenched segregation, Coley asserted her
 humanity.


In Georgia in 1925, the State Board of Health had assumed the responsibility for supervising and licensing midwives, approximately 9,000 of them. By 1944 their numbers had decreased to 2,200. By 1946, prior to the making of the film, 26% of all Georgia births were still attended by "granny" midwives (Campbell, 1946). The purpose of making All My Babies was to produce an educational tool to improve the services of lay midwives. According to George Stoney ((1959), the producer of the film, the systems in place for licensing midwives might be enforced strictly or not at all depending upon the quality and interest of the local health officer. Most of the programs for teaching midwives centered on theoretical demonstrations, and very few doctors or public health nurses ever attended the "granny" births. Initially funded for $20,000, the final budget was in the vicinity of $45,000, and the entire production took just over a year--from August 1951 to late fall 1952 (Jackson, 1987). Miss Hannah Mitchell, one of the two nurse midwives in the State Health Department assigned to Mr. Stoney as technical advisors, was responsible to see that the film met all 118 points agreed upon by a Committee. Most importantly, however, was the trusting relationship Miss Mitchell established with Miss Mary, that things progressed smoothly (Jackson, 1987). Hannah Mitchell (1989) was very pleased with the choice of Mary Coley as "Miss Mary." "When I met her I, at once, said, "She's our gal." And she really was. She was a person that was home folksy, but she also was a bright person, as well. Her patients loved her. She had really gotten a name for herself in Albany, with the nurses and the doctors, too."

Georgia's health officer in the early 1950s, Dr. Rice, and all those responsible for creating and producing this important documentary could not have known how widely it would be received, and the good it would do in many countries around the world. Seeing it featured in articles, and now in this important exhibit is evidence of its historical significance, and the value it can bring to current practices of birthing.

The film All My Babies is available for rental or purchase from the Circulating Film Library of the Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd Street, NYC 10019, 212-708-9530 or 212-708-9531 (FAX); and on line at MoMA.org; then go to "Circulating Film & Video Library."

References:

Campbell, M. (1946). Folks do get born. New York: Rinehart & Company.

Holmes, L. J. (2005). Reclaiming midwives: Pillars of community support (Exhibition booklet). Smithsonian Anacostia Museum, Washington, D.C.

Jackson, L. (1987. The production of George Stoney's film ALL MY BABIES: A MIDWIFE'S OWN STORY (1952). Film History (1), 567-592.

Mitchell, H. Oral history interview by Rose B. Cannon, Mary 16, 1989, for the Georgia Nursing History Project, Special Collections, Woodruff Library, Emory University, Atlanta, GA.

Stoney, G. (1959). "All my babies, research;" Film: Book 1: The audience and the filmmaker, ed. Robert Hughes, New York: Grove Press. (79-96).
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Title Annotation:Reclaiming Midwives: Pillars of Community Support exhibition report
Author:Cannon, Rose B.
Publication:Georgia Nursing
Geographic Code:1U5GA
Date:Aug 1, 2006
Words:946
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