In 1953, filmmaker George Stoney, working with the Georgia Department of Public Health, documented the life’s work of Mary Frances Hill Coley, a revered mid-wife in rural, segregated Albany, Georgia. I first encountered the documentary as part of a Women & Gender course that sought to establish the role of elder Black women as informal healthcare professionals, community soothers, and extended family. And while the documentary was meant to serve as a teaching tool for young Black women interested in entering the medical profession as midwives, it became a strengthening tool among the informally-educated apprentice-class. It held that providing needed care and healing others was as much a function of bedside manner as licensing among official bodies.
Coley’s story, “All My Babies,” follows the midwife as she walks down dirt roads, sometimes in the stark of night to shotgun houses and anxious families awaiting the arrival of a new life. In each case, Coley checks on her patients, but also tends to the needs of the entire family during the course and immediately following the birth of their babies. In addition to cooking meals, sweeping, “minding” other children already within the household, and calming the fears of nervous fathers-to-be, Coley demonstrates a stern, but loving bedside manner that ensures the health of mothers and babies. After both easy and challenging births, Coley assisted the new mother and household for days sometimes, allowing a smooth transition for the household. More than sixty years following the documentary, Coley’s amazing efforts — having “birthed” more than 3,000 babies in four counties — immediately sprang to mind when considering the work of today’s home healthcare nurses. Many, having been fitted with the same expanse of duties, like Coley, see their efforts as divine acts of human kindness, rather than just a profession.
This spirit of acting on human kindness to improve the health outcomes of African Americans has been shared by Black women’s clubs, churches, social leaders and early Black insurance companies since Emancipation. In 1914, Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute, said at the annual Tuskegee Negro Conference: “At the last session of the Tuskegee Negro Conference, some startling facts were brought out concerning the health of the colored people of the United States… 45 percent of all deaths among Negroes were preventable; there are 450,000 Negroes seriously ill all the time; the annual cost of this illness is $75 million; that sickness and death costs Negroes annually $100 million.”
The resulting clarion call established National Negro Health Week, an annual effort spearheaded by Black women who provided door-to-door canvassing, home healthcare, and instruction on preventative and convalescing care to the infirmed and elderly.
More than 100 years later, many of Washington’s concerns remain, and still, it is the core of Black nurses and other health providers who lead the charge. As The Informer celebrates the Herculean efforts of the nation’s nurses, both within established medical facilities and in private homes, we’ve worked to acknowledge that much of the work is underpaid, under-recognized, and stressful, but also the lifeblood of our progress.
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