Merging Modern Medicine and West African Traditions
Curators at the National Museum of African American History and Culture purchased this tintype at auction in 2014 because it provided rare visual evidence of a nineteenth-century black woman as a medical professional. Additional research uncovered a possible identification: Sarah Loguen Fraser (1863-1933), an African American female doctor—one of only about 115 in the nation in the 1890s. Loguen Fraser educated black midwives to integrate modern medical knowledge into their traditional routines.
Until the early twentieth century, midwives, not male doctors, assisted at most births in the United States. In the North, most were immigrant European women; in the South, African American women assisted at both black and white births. These black midwives saw their work as a sacred duty that sustained intergenerational gender and community cohesion by employing time-honored practices derived from West African traditions.
Although the white medical establishment began a campaign to replace midwifery in the late nineteenth century, African American midwives still delivered as many as half of the black babies born in some southern states in the 1950s.
—William S. Pretzer, Senior Curator, National Museum of African American History and Culture