In honor of International Day of the Midwife, Dr. Nikia Grayson and Willie Westbrook talk midwifery, their grandmothers, and racism in medicine.
Scroll down for the video transcript if you’d prefer to read along!
Nikia: Hello, I’m Dr. Nikia Grayson. I’m the Clinical Director and a Nurse Midwife here at CHOICES. And I’m here with Ms. Willie Westbrook. And Ms. Willie has been with CHOICES for a long time.
Willie: I’ve been here 13 years.
Nikia: So, today we’re talking about midwifery. You know, I’m a nurse midwife and I started my midwifery career here at CHOICES, and, you know, what really brought me to midwifery was recognizing that there was this gap, and I wanted to fill that gap. And so I came here to CHOICES to start a midwifery program that would help to increase the number of Black midwives in Memphis and the Mid-South. And I understand that your relative, your great-grandmother, was a midwife?
Willie: She was, and she actually delivered me. She delivered, basically, in her community. It was a town called Collins, Mississippi between Jackson and Hattiesburg. And she would go to the homes, and her son would help her. And she had a sister, a younger sister, that was helping her. The church would pay her. She never did take chances on breech babies – they would just call them “feet first.”
Her name was Sally May Hatcher. And I was told that she loved pink, she loved that pink, she was always wearing pink, and so they called her “Mama Pank.”
She had a knowledge of feeling the baby, the mother’s stomach to feel the head and to know when the child was actually gonna be born. She would always stay close to home when she knew that that was the case. And they would come and get her.
She used a straight razor to cut the [umbilical] cord, and they said that she used shoe thread that she would keep boiled and cleaned to tie the umbilical cord. And she insisted that the mother would stay home for ten days. They used blankets and towels and cloth diapers.
Nikia: So, you said the church paid her?
Willie: The church paid her. They would pay her, I don’t know exactly how much, but everybody went to the same church basically. And so they would schedule a collection for stuff like that. And they would pay her out of it. And she would pay her son if he had to take someone over to the hospital, the hospital in Laurel, which was a larger town, for things she never did, like breech births.
Nikia: Obviously, it was a small community and they knew each other.
Willie: Yeah, everybody knew each other.
Nikia: And she was the county midwife.
Willie: Yeah, and like I said, she was kind of like a nurturing type of person. She would also help other people that were sick. She would go over and sit with sick people. I was told that she actually was sort of like a healer, if you want to believe in that. She would lay hands on people also.
Nikia: You know, midwives, like the grand midwives, the Black midwives in the community were seen as healers. They didn’t just care for people who were pregnant or catch babies. They cared for people who were sick.
Willie: That’s what she was.
Nikia: They would help them, give them medicine or herbs, or things like that and they knew what to do.
Willie: Well…she gave them corn whiskey.
Nikia: She did?
Willie: She gave them corn whiskey, the ones that were nervous, and, I mean, it relaxed them a lot.
Willie: So, she did that and she did not have any medicine or anything like that, but…
Nikia: But she knew what to do for them.
Willie: She knew what worked.
Nikia: And so, she would go sit with people that were sick and care for them as well. Yeah, and I mean, I think that that is something that was really special about midwives in the community.
Willie: Yes, it was good to have somebody in the community that just took charge of stuff like that. And she was one of them.
Nikia: Yeah, I think that’s amazing.
Willie: She was just a sweet little lady. I remember her as always just a beautiful person, and she loved the Lord very much, very much. And she was a good cook. She was a very good cook. Mama Pank.
Willie: I was born in ‘48. So it had to have been around between the 40’s and the 50’s, everything was still segregated, and so, they just had this hospital in Laurel that accepted Black people, but they had to come in a certain part, it was a certain area in the hospital that they kept them. It was a ward that they kept Black people on. And I know that for a fact because, like I was telling Katy, when I got sick, my daddy had to take me to West Memphis – we were living in Memphis – to see a doctor. I couldn’t see a doctor here in Memphis. That was when I was a child. So, people before then…
Nikia: Right, and I tell my students this too because, like, my dad…he was in the army but he could not vote because the voter’s act [Voting Rights Act of 1965] had not been passed yet. And I just saw him a couple weeks ago! It’s not that far removed from us – the segregation, the discrimination, the Jim Crow that our families experienced.
Willie: It’s still going on.
Nikia: Yeah, it is still going on, absolutely. It’s just in a different form now, but we see it every day. It definitely was more…I don’t even know if it was more overt then. I mean, I feel like these last few years, it’s been pretty overt too.
Willie: That’s very true. It’s sad. I could say it’s a different form, and the Black Lives Matter, it’s bringing it out, but it’s not changing. I hate to say that.
Nikia: I hate to say it too. I mean, because we really, with the Civil Rights Act…
Willie: We should have come a long way…
Nikia: And we really haven’t. And it’s unfortunate because we see it at every level – politics, we see it in our healthcare, which is why we see the need for Black midwives. You know, they say midwifery is a calling, right? And so, I was called to do it.
Willie: And I’m so glad!
Nikia: That I answered the call right?
Willie: And that you were called here.
Nikia: Right, yeah, I know. I’m glad I answered the call because I definitely never saw my life going this way.
Willie: Isn’t that right? Well, I’m so glad that you came here to CHOICES because you have really brought…this clinic, you have brought a lot to it.
Nikia: Oh, thank you.
Willie: Thank you so much for that.
Nikia: Well thank you, I really appreciate that. You know, sometimes they say you can’t see the forest for the trees. You’re doing the work, you’re doing the work, and you don’t necessarily always see the fruits of it, right?
Willie: But other people do.
Nikia: Yeah, other people do. And that’s always, you know, that’s good.
Willie: You seem to bring out some of these older traditions…that the young women actually didn’t know that they had choices to have a midwife and midwifery. The thought that they just had to go to the hospital to have a baby delivered. And now I’ve seen since you’ve been here, so many women have come in to have their children. And they trust it and trust you!
Nikia: They do trust it. You know, it was so important to me when I decided to be a midwife, I knew I could definitely care for people, but to me that was too small. That was thinking very small. So how do we broaden it? How do we bring more Black midwives to the South? How do we educate them to get them to want to do this as well, and be caregivers for their communities? And how do we get the community to trust us? And so, that’s a big part of it too. Because we can build it, but if they don’t trust us, they won’t come. Fortunately, we have a great team. I say it all the time, I thank Rebecca [Terrell, former executive director] for taking the chance because she didn’t have to, and for really helping us to create this here. But yeah, I love it. I love the people I care for. I love the families, and I love talking to them and being with them. And I see it as an honor to be able to provide care for them.
Willie: My grandmother would be proud of you. Yes she would.
Nikia: Oh, thank you. I think about my grandmother every day. I don’t know if I ever told you, but my grandmother and I were very close.
Willie: That’s good.
Nikia: And I think about her every day. And I think that she would be proud of who I am and the work that I do. Yeah, I just, I want her to be happy, and I believe that she is.