HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WBTW) — Tiffany Townsend was the first Black midwife in West Michigan and one of the first in South Carolina.
Townsend said she moved to South Carolina because she saw the need for people of color in the health industry.
Townsend has been doing birth work for seven years, starting off as a doula and eventually becoming a licensed midwife.
“I was looking for a midwife that would be able to relate to me and my culture, and you know, my upbringings, without me having to explain,” Townsend said. “And I couldn’t find one. I searched high and low. I expanded my search even further, like two hours. I was willing to drive and I couldn’t. So I was like, well, if I’m looking for this, I know that I’m not alone.”
For the next five years, Townsend would give Black females hope, especially in South Carolina.
“Everybody says the same thing,” she said. “Like we have been praying for you. We didn’t know who it was going to be or when they were going to be here. We’ve been praying for you, like we are so happy that you’re here.”
Black midwives make up 3% of the homebirth midwifery population, which is why she said there needs to be more health care providers who understand the culture of Black people.
“Something as simple as a Mongolian mark, if your provider is not educated and understands myelinated skin,” she said. “I’ve had clients had child protective services called on them because of a birthmark on their baby’s bottom because the provider thought that it was abuse.”
Townsend said the lives of Black pregnant women have been greatly impacted by the lack of people of color in the health care industry for centuries.
“We have issues in health care that we are not interested in addressing, because it forces us to have to look at like the history of a thing,” Townsend said. “The history of obstetrics and gynecology is really starting with practicing medicine on people that were enslaved and non-consenting. If that’s the inception of us, then the energy of that is going to continue.”
Townsend said Black pregnant or post-partum women are dying three to 11 times more than white women depending on where you are in the country.
“Black bodies are not broken,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with our bodies. There’s nothing wrong with us. The system in which we have to surrender to in those moments is not adequate to handle us.”
Townsend said Black midwives have played a critical role in improving the care and outcomes for Black families, especially in the South.
“Midwives literally saved the Black community,” she said. “There was a long time where we were not even able to participate in hospital care, so where were people giving birth during that time? It was Black midwives.”
Until the late 19th Century, most births were attended by midwives, many of whom were Black, indigenous or immigrant women. Slave owners used African American midwives to ensure the reproductive health of enslaved women and the health of newborns to expand their labor force.
It was also common for midwives to attend to the slave master’s wives during birth.
“They literally were an integral part of the healing that had to take place after so much abuse,” Townsend said. “Now what happened, it got demonized, we had medicine come in and really destroy the reputations of these midwives.”
In the early 20th Century, however, as childbirth became medicalized, physicians emerged as the primary birth attendants, and childbirth moved from the home to the hospital.
“The advancement of medicine has not saved us,” Townsend said. “It has not created better birthing outcomes, and so as much as people are like, oh, I thought you’re just bringing a towel and a pan, I always like to say, put a little bit of respect on them. Because even though that’s all they brought, they had an arsenal of education and knowledge that they brought from wherever they came from. Those things weren’t forgotten. And we still have better birthing outcomes under those conditions. I’m honored to carry that legacy.”
Townsend said she wants to work with political officials on changing some of South Carolina’s laws surrounding midwives to make it easier for everyone to have access, and build a birth center in different rural areas in South Carolina.
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Maya Lockett is a reporter at News13. Maya is from Los Angeles. She joined the News13 team in November 2021. She graduated from Syracuse University. Follow Maya on Twitter and read more of her work here.