Historical research about racialized midwives’ history of immigration, settlement and integration into Canadian society has such mysterious twists and turns. Unearthing some of the hidden stories involved: searching through old newspapers, flyers, physicians journals, hospital procedures, national and provincial health policies, old photographs and family heirlooms. Finally the pieces came together as first hand witnesses gave their accounts of working as a midwife, being birthed by a midwife or having been attended by a midwife. The story of the Black midwives who came to Canada is full of tragedy and triumph. Following are frequently asked questions that folks had for us during this journey.
Amongst the slaves that Harriet Tubman led to freedom, there were midwives.
In Black communities, a keeper of health knowledge could be referred to as: A Doctress, a Nurse or a Midwife. They blended traditional herbal and modern techniques to treat. Some were well known for their healing salves and ointments.
We found birth certificates and journal entries in physician journals in Nova Scotia for midwives: Mrs. M. Doherty, Elizabeth Byers, Grandma Brown, Mrs. Price, Mrs. Ronan, Barbara Matthews, and Mrs. Fanny Carvery were Africville midwives. Barbara Matthews was a Black Loyalist who worked in Shelburne and Yarmouth. They were all well known as being well-respected herbalists, healers and respected community leaders.
We also uncovered stories of immigrant midwives in the prairies. In Alberta we discovered Mrs. Amy Broadie, from a farm in Tiger Lily, And Mrs. Drusilla Threatt Smith (in Amber Valley). In Saskatchewan we were introduced to Mattie Maye.
Families emigrated from Oklahoma to Alberta and Saskatchewan. One of these families belonged to Drucilla Threatt (AKA Drucilla Smith or Drucilla Jamerson), the great, great grandmother of current Alberta midwife, Chandra Martini, who emigrated originally from Alabama to Alberta. These women were known as Black Pioneer Midwives (says Chandra Martini, RM, Alberta).
Q. Are there any other notable Black immigrant midwives in the prairies?
A. They called themselves “Black Pioneer Midwives”. There was also a nurse and midwife, Mrs. Amy Broadie (1908-late 1930). She conducted births in the districts of Campsie, Junkins (now Wildwood), Keystone (now Breton), and Pine Creek (now Amber Valley) in Alberta. Historian, Debbie Beaver, writes that, “She traveled from house to house by horse and wagon a day or so prior to the expected date of delivery and would stay with the family a few days after the birth as well….Although times have changed, the hard work and sacrifices of these early settlers continues to influence their descendants, and many are well educated and successful in many areas today. These stories need to continue to be told, preserved and passed down to the future generations as this is an important piece of Canadian history. (Beaver, 2017) Debbie Beaver is a member of the Black Settlers of Alberta and Saskatchewan Historical Society (BSAS).
“The [BSAS] is a non-profit organization that was started by four women who are all descendants of the black settlers that came to Alberta and Saskatchewan from the United States between 1905-1911. These settlers migrated from the rural South via Oklahoma to escape racial oppression and Jim Crow laws.” (Debbie Beaver, 2017, ‘Black Settlers of Alberta and Saskatchewan Historical Society’ published in the History Matters, online magazine by Active History)
Canada emerged from Slavery in 1834 but hierarchies i.e. Structural Racism continued. There were many well known, Segregated towns across Canada (e.g., Africville, Nova Scotia), where there were segregated elementary Red School Houses) & professional schools This also existed in Ontario. Policies restricted education of Black people, entrance into nursing, midwifery or medical school until the 1950s. Segregation of hospitals existed for both patients & workers. Many immigrants came from the Caribbean to Alberta as teachers, court clerks, stenographers and oil workers, further increasing the diversity within Alberta’s Black community. Token individuals like Violet King were permitted into law school which allowed her to become the first Black female lawyer to graduate in 1953. But generally, Black women were barred from professional academic institutions. The research team is filling in the blanks for stories in which pieces are missing. The stories we heard included accounts of tightly connected communities in which folks knew how many horse & buggies could be shared, allowing a Black midwife to quickly attend births several miles away. All we know is that many midwives walked, got a lift by horseback or rarely a truck ride, to attend births within the large perimeter of their communities. We found some evidence of midwives (often described and documented as “nurses”) who contributed valuable skills and leadership to Ontario communities. One such figure was Ida Leon Johnson (née Ida Roberts) who was the daughter of Junius B. Roberts and Frances A. Roberts. She married John Alexander Johnson (Parents=George B. and Amanda Johnson) on 28 Sep 1887 in Oakville. Their history would be recorded among the Black historical records in Oakville. They were the parents of multiple children, including Ira Junius Johnson (A black man) who then married Isabella Jones (a white woman) in 1930. Ira Johnson was the son of IDA JOHNSON The KKK came from the US to try to prevent Ira’s controversial wedding (although interracial marriage was legal in Canada). The KKK went as far as burning a cross in the girl’s parent’s (Jone’s) lawn and challenged their son to “mend his ways” since he had been brought up in a “sterling manner” by his family, namely “Ida Johnson” a respected community member. According to the Star newspaper on March 7, 1930 and the Oakville Journal Record newspaper, later in 1930, the wedding occurred in an Indian church in New Credit, near Hagersville, Ontario. March 23, 1930 they announced their marriage in the Salvation Army.