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Mothers of Gynecology honored in Black maternal health conference in Montgomery

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

In the 1800s, the man known as the father of gynecology advanced the field through painful experiments on enslaved women. Now three of those women - known by the names Anarcha, Lucy and Betsy - are being celebrated as the mothers of gynecology. Recently, women's health professionals gathered at an art installation made in their honor. Cristela Guerra has more from Montgomery, Ala.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Are you ready?

MICHELLE BROWDER: Are y'all ready to walk?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Let's go.

BROWDER: (Singing) Ain't going to let nobody...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Turn me round.

BROWDER: See; I can sing, too.

CRISTELA GUERRA, BYLINE: Artist Michelle Browder leads the women in a song as they walk to the park, gathering in a circle around these towering mothers. On their bodies are names like Angela Davis, Serena Williams. Words like beauty and resilience are welded to their sides while African beads adorn their necks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BROWDER: All of these women are bigger than life for me, right? So Anarcha's 15 feet tall. Betsy is about - I think she's 12. And Lucy is nine feet tall.

GUERRA: Anarcha's hips are crafted from the spades of shovels. She faces the sky, defiant and hopeful. At the center of her body, her womb is a chasm for the world to see. Visitors place flowers at the feet of the sculptures. This is, after all, what doulas and midwives do. They protect mothers.

DENISE BOLDS: We see our clients in this art, and we see the losses. We see the victories. We see the ones that make it just by the skin of their teeth. And we see the fear.

RAVAE SINCLAIR: The fear of dying.

BOLDS: It's all here. It's all here. It's all here.

GUERRA: Denise Bolds, president of Doulas of North America, or DONA International, and former president Ravae Sinclair want to empower families, to provide comfort, to see problems others might ignore, to call out the truth, which is that Black mothers die in childbirth at disproportionate rates and are three to four times more likely to suffer complications during pregnancy.

SINCLAIR: I had a mother message me this morning. She says, I have seven days to my expected due date. And I said, you made it, and you will continue to make it. She's with us because she's afraid to die. And that's it - not on our watch.

GUERRA: Browder's thought about Anarcha, Lucy and Betsy since she was 18. That's when she learned about how a white doctor named J. Marion Sims experimented on the bodies of enslaved Black women without anesthesia. He claimed to have cured them of ailments that arose from pregnancy. So Browder took the tool he invented, the speculum, and created a tiara for Betsy's head.

BROWDER: They were birthed out of pain but also because I wanted to change the narrative. I wanted to change the conversation about Black women in this country and what we have to contribute and the infant mortality rate and reproductive justice and maternal health.

GUERRA: Conversations happened over two days inside Old Ship A.M.E. Zion Church. The conference was called the Day of Reckoning. They listened to Deirdre Cooper Owens, a historian of U.S. slavery medicine, describe how this legacy of medical racism persists.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEIRDRE COOPER OWENS: And so the embodied experiences of the legacy of medical racism is that we're not believed. We are thought to be able to withstand pain more. And class doesn't protect you. Education doesn't protect you. Your relationship status doesn't protect you.

GUERRA: One of the last speakers was Charles Johnson, an Atlanta-based father who began the nonprofit 4Kira4Moms after the loss of his wife from hemorrhage following the birth of their second son. In 2018, Johnson worked with lawmakers to pass the Preventing Maternal Deaths Act, which provides funding to better investigate and review incidents of maternal mortality.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARLES JOHNSON: As we work to protect women and babies and put an end to the maternal mortality crisis, it's also equally as important, if not more as important, that we protect our history and that these stories are told.

GUERRA: There's a line Michelle Browder uses for the mothers of gynecology. It's from the playwright Ntozake Shange's work "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When The Rainbow Is Enuf." It reads, let her be born. Let her be born and handled warmly. For NPR News, I'm Cristela Guerra.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHROMATICS SONG, "MOVE A MOUNTAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cristela Guerra