One March day in 1984, Onnie Lee Logan received a letter from the Mobile, Ala., County Board of Health, telling her that her services were no longer required and that her license to practice as a midwife was revoked with immediate effect. The letter thanked her for her 38 years of faithful service to the county and wished her a healthy retirement.
Logan was devastated. Although she was then around 73 years old, Logan had expected to keep on delivering babies as long as she was healthy enough to do so. “Nothing in my life has ever made me feel so little,” she would recall in her 1989 autobiography, Motherwit: An Alabama Midwife’s Story. Indeed, it was the shock of her enforced retirement that drove Logan to set down her life in print, producing an unforgettable memoir of one of the last African-American “granny midwives” in the South.
Onnie Lee Logan was born around 1910 near Sweet Water, Marengo County, southwest Alabama, the 14th child of Len Rodgers, a farmer and carpenter, and his wife, Martha, a midwife and farmer. Like her 15 siblings and like half of all babies born in the United States at that time, Onnie Lee was delivered in her own home by an unlicensed midwife. In rural Southern communities from the earliest days of slavery, most midwives were African American, known as “granny midwives.”
In Onnie Lee’s family, the tradition was particularly strong, with her mother, both of her grandmothers and even a brother-in-law serving as midwives. Although many of her neighbors struggled to make ends meet by sharecropping, Onnie Lee’s parents owned their own land—a “huge plantation,” as she remembered it—on which they raised livestock and grew vegetables and produced some rice and cotton. Though the family was cash-poor, it was also self-sufficient and remained debt-free, no mean feat in rural Alabama during the hard times of the 1920s and 1930s. “The Depression depressed us like it did everybody else,” she recalled in Motherwit, but, she noted, they survived without suffering.
From an early age, the children assisted their parents on the farm, but Onnie Lee, who suffered from fainting spells, was excused from working in the blistering heat of the cotton fields. She spent much of her childhood helping her mother with housework and traveled with her throughout the county when she was called on to deliver babies or tend to the sick. Martha Rodgers did so without any guarantee of financial reward, although some grateful parents paid her with corn, chicken or greens.
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By age 15, Onnie Lee was working in Sweet Water as a maid and child nurse for a white couple, but she dreamed of becoming a nurse, an occupation that required finishing high school. Her mother’s death from a stroke in 1928 forced her to leave school after the 10th grade, however, to look after the rest of her family.
When she was 20, she married her sister’s brother-in-law, Elmo Watkins, a railroad worker, and moved with him to Magnolia, another community in Marengo County. Her only son, Johnnie, was born a year later, and it was while pregnant and working as a maid in Magnolia that she began to consider a career in midwifery. She helped a doctor deliver her employer’s child and was so encouraged by the doctor’s praise of her skills that she began assisting several local midwives.
Again, however, her plans were stymied in 1934, shortly after she moved to southern Alabama’s largest city, Mobile, when her husband left her for another woman. On seeking a divorce, she discovered that Elmo Watkins was still legally married to his first wife. She later married a second husband, however, and following his death, she married Roosevelt Logan in 1951, remaining with him until her death.
A few years before her marriage to Roosevelt Logan, she began midwifery classes at the Mobile County Board of Health and earned her license and permit in 1949 in record time. When she began her career “catching babies,” the number of midwives in Alabama peaked at 2,600, the majority of them African-American women who performed home births in small communities.
Onnie Lee Logan appreciated the classes, especially about matters of hygiene, nutrition and prenatal care. But she also passionately believed that the skills that made her a good midwife came from a “higher power. … God gave me wisdom. Motherwit, commonsense.” She first experienced that guiding influence a few months before receiving her midwife’s license, while assisting a more experienced midwife deliver twins. Unable to get the firstborn child to breathe, Logan’s supervisor left the child aside, believing that he was dead, to concentrate on the second birth, which was successful. Logan, however, was determined that the first child should live and gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for 45 minutes until he revived. Not having yet learned mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in class, Logan believed that God had given her the power to save the child.
Logan relied on her faith and her mother wit during the four decades she worked as a midwife performing home births in Prichard, a predominantly African-American suburb of Mobile. Many of her clients lived in desperate poverty and were unable to pay her for her services, which included not only delivering babies but also sanitizing and preparing the mother’s birthing room and, as her mother and grandmothers had done before her, cooking meals and cleaning up for the birth family afterward. Although many of the mothers that she attended suffered from poor diets and overwork, Logan was immensely proud that she lost only four children out of the several hundred babies she delivered in her career.
As with other African-American midwives in the South, Logan’s career was profoundly altered by the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the expansion of public health care in the 1970s. After Mobile’s main maternity clinic was legally obligated to admit black as well as white mothers, the demand for traditional midwives traveling to home births declined significantly among African Americans.
Believing that hospital births were safer than home births, Alabama banned lay midwifery in 1976. Logan, however, was one of only 150 African-American midwives allowed to continue until 1984, when the state dismissed her and the remaining “granny” midwives.
In the final decade of her life, Onnie Lee Logan was no longer allowed to deliver babies, but she was able to enjoy the moderate fame and recognition that came from the publication and success of Motherwit. Critics praised the book, written from Logan’s words by an academic, Katherine Clark, for capturing Logan’s expressive turn of phrase in the rich dialect of rural black Alabama, and her dogged optimism in the face of adversity. The novelist Alice Walker, whose own work celebrates the endurance of rural Southern black women like Logan, praised her as a “heroic woman” who lived a “life after my own heart.”
As a testament to Motherwit’s importance as a powerful and empowering text by a working-class black woman, a selection from the book appeared alongside the writings of Anne Frank, Simone de Beauvoir and Maya Angelou in the literary anthology The Norton Book of Women’s Lives in 1993. Logan died two years later, age 85, in Mobile, Ala.
Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, the African American National Biography was first published by Oxford University Press in an award-winning, eight-volume print edition in 2008; a 12-volume second edition followed in 2012. As of 2015, more than 5,500 separate AANB entries are available online as part of OUP’s African American Studies Center.
Steven J. Niven is executive editor of the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography, the Dictionary of African Biography, and the African American National Biography at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is also the author of Barack Obama: A Pocket Biography of Our 44th President.