ALBANY — Thronateeska Heritage Center has opened an exhibit focusing on the groundbreaking 1953 documentary film “All My Babies.” The documentary focused on the impact of Albany midwife Mary Francis Coley, one of the legendary black women whose skills in obstetric care were critical to the health and survival of countless black mothers and the children they delivered while being banned from hospitals due to segregation.
Across the ages and around the world, midwives have gone by many names: In Germany they are the weise frau, in Spain they are the comadre, in France they are the sage-femme. Regardless of the language, there is a universal meaning: with woman.
In the United States, midwives were responsible for the majority of births until the early part of the 20th century when the birthing process began to be looked upon as a procedure requiring the services of a physician. During this period, medical training was restricted to males and shifted from its previous female roots and traditions. By 1935, national statistics showed that only 12.5 percent of babies were delivered by midwives compared to nearly 50 percent at the beginning of the century.
The roots of midwifery in the South resulted from a combination of cultural and socio-economic factors. With physicians trained in the specialty of obstetrics and gynecology, they declared themselves the appropriate providers of care during pregnancy and delivery and hospitals to be the appropriate place for birth. Midwives were relegated to provide their services to those who did not have access to those resources and services.
Across the country, the skills and need for the old “granny midwives” died out with their passing. However, in isolated regions across the country, economics, class and segregation kept the skills and services of the midwife alive. This was the case in southwest Georgia, where they flourished until the 1960s with the support of the public health system.
Midwifery was so successful here that in 1952 the Georgia Department of Public Health used funds provided by the United States Children’s Bureau to make a film that would be used to instruct and improve the skills of the granny midwives still active in the region.
“All My Babies,” featured Coley, a midwife in Albany who served in that capacity for more than 30 years. Robert Galbraith worked as the filmmaker on the project, and during that period he also worked as a still photographer. The stills he made capture a rare and intimate glimpse into the African American midwife tradition. The film was so significant that it has been shown around the world by the World Health Organization, making Coley one of the most recognized faces of midwifery.
“It’s timely that this exhibit is opening during African-American History Month,” Todd Deariso, director of the Thronateeska Heritage Center, said. “Midwives like Albanian Mary Francis Coley provided a vital safety net when segregation and poverty made access to medical and hospital care impossible for women of color. Legendary midwives across the South were known in their communities for their compassionate caring. And today, the compassion, caring and support that midwives provide to women and their families during and after birth are the reasons that so many women in this country continue to seek out their services.”
Thronateeska is open Thursday-Saturday from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. There is no charge for admission. Visitors should check in at the Science Museum before visiting the “All My Babies” exhibit housed in the historic train depot.