Against the grim backdrop of substandard medical care and racial biases that make Black women across the country nearly three times as likely to die from a maternal cause as white women, leading obstetricians, gynecologists, doulas, midwives and racial justice advocates are meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, this week in a bid to tackle the persistent health crisis.
Southern Poverty Law Center President and CEO Margaret Huang and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones – creator of “The 1619 Project” – are among the prominent leaders speaking at the Anarcha, Lucy, Betsey Second Annual Day of Reckoning conference in Montgomery this week. The conference is named in honor of three enslaved Black women brutalized by a doctor in the 1840s in the name of gynecological research.
While the physician, J. Marion Sims, was long credited with inventing modern gynecological techniques, recent scholarship has unseated him from his perch as a medical pioneer. The enslaved women forced to undergo his experimental surgeries with neither consent nor anesthesia are increasingly viewed today as symbols of the massive hurdles Black women face in accessing prenatal care, in giving birth safely and in overcoming the racist stereotypes and stress that batter their overall health.
“This is about getting to the root of what is ailing this country as it relates to racial equity and maternal health,” said Michelle Browder, the Montgomery-based artist and activist who put together the conference. “You can’t help but reckon with the fact that we have a problem – we have, even, a crisis – on our hands. Why are women dying sometimes of C-sections? What is ailing our country and why are we going backwards? This has been kind of swept under the rug or overlooked. But we’re calling on doctors and midwives in obstetrics and gynecology to look a little deeper at what’s really happening.”
Browder has been a force in bringing such disparities to light for years. The searing monument of steel, shards of glass and discarded metal she fashioned to the women whose bodies were mutilated by Sims, “Mothers of Gynecology,” was unveiled in September 2021. Since then, Browder, with help from a $50,000 grant from the SPLC, as well as funding from other organizations, bought a two-story building that sits on the very site where Sims performed his experiments on enslaved women. When renovations are complete, the building is to be a center for education, art and discussion about Black women leaders, women’s health and a broad array of issues surrounding civil rights, activism and social justice.
The three-day Reckoning conference, now in its second year, is the first block in building that vision. It is what Browder calls a “pathway to reproductive health and justice.”
That, Huang said, makes the conference – and the work of Browder in general – aligned with the mission of the SPLC to ensure that communities of color in the South have the same access to justice as anyone else.
“It’s also a recognition that the moment that we’re in calls for an intersectional approach to solutions,” Huang said. “Acknowledging that there is a history in this country of denying this right is really vital for ensuring that we build a multiracial coalition to demand that those rights be protected moving forward. This is not a battle that we’ll win with just the health sector or just the civil rights sector. It requires all of us to be responsive to the moment and participating in the solutions that we need.”
In a society where poverty and pollution are often more likely to be encountered in neighborhoods with high concentrations of people of color than affordable housing, grocery stores or reliable internet, the health care obstacles faced by Black women go far beyond maternal health.
Studies show health care providers are more likely to dismiss Black pain and to negatively describe Black patients in electronic health records. Black women confront racist stereotypes that impact their well-being and the medical care they receive. And research has shown that the stress of living with racism itself impacts both physical and mental health.
But the impact of racism on Black maternal health has a particularly grim history in Montgomery.
It was in Montgomery in 1973 that two young girls, Minnie Lee and Mary Alice Relf, then 12 and 14, were involuntarily sterilized as part of a U.S. government program. Their mother was illiterate and signed with an “X” on a piece of paper she thought was authorizing her daughters to get birth control. Represented by the SPLC in one of the organization’s early cases, the girls sued the federal government. The suit, and the testimony of the sisters before Congress, exposed the widespread practice of involuntary and coerced sterilization of thousands of Black, Native American, Puerto Rican and poor white women under U.S. government programs over decades. It also officially put a stop to the practice.
The sisters, now in their 60s and living in Montgomery in public housing, survive on Social Security. They received neither apology nor remuneration from the U.S. government.
They are being honored at the conference. But Browder has not stopped there. With more than $73,000 her organization raised for them, partly through a GoFundMe fundraiser, she bought them a three-bedroom house. They plan to move out of public housing and into the new home soon.
“This conference is about a conversation we need to have, but it’s also about a call to action,” Browder said. Speaking about what she called the heroism and endurance of the Relf sisters, she said, “It’s time to talk about how we can better repair the broken. There’s no place that’s better equipped to handle this conversation than Montgomery, Alabama. It’s here that Black women were experimented on. The segregation of Black bodies is rooted in Montgomery’s history.”
Montgomery, Alabama, is the site of this week’s Anarcha, Lucy, Betsey Second Annual Day of Reckoning conference, where health care professionals and racial justice advocates will tackle the persistent health crisis facing Black women. Speakers include, from left: SPLC President and CEO Margaret Huang, artist and activist Michelle Browder and journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. (Credit: Photo Illustration by SPLC)