'Catching babies,' black midwives delivered, despite segregation

Anne Cheskey Smith
Special to Black Mountain News
Mary Hayden, 84, with her granddaughter, Mary O. Burnette, about 1942 and two of Hayden's great-grandchildren.

(Editor’s note: Anne Chesky Smith is director of Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center.)

This is how it was, then, for Mary Stepp Burnette Hayden.

“She used to tell me how she would have to outsmart a catamount that picked up her scent as she walked home through the mountains at night, carrying a chunk of fresh pork, her payment for a new delivery,” Mary O. Burnette said last week of Hayden, her grandmother and a midwife and herbalist renowned in the Valley. 

“She would hear this animal squeal and … she would start pulling off garments. Pull off a bonnet, throw it down and she’d hear that animal stop long enough to tear that up and she’s still running. Then she’d pull off something else, maybe a vest, and then an apron, and then undergarments or even stockings if she needed to and had the time, so she could make it home.”

Often descended from enslaved midwives, midwives in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries were typically African-American women who learned the trade from their mothers. Mary Stepp Burnette Hayden of Black Mountain was no exception.

Born in January 1858 to Hanah Stepp (c. 1832–Nov. 6, 1897) on the Joe Stepp farm in Black Mountain, Mary learned to deliver and care for babies from her mother, who had served as a midwife from a very young age, having been sold to the Stepps from a plantation in Alabama when she was 13.

Though Mary O. Burnette never met Hanah Stepp, she heard stories about her. “My mother said (she) had very black skin, but not African black," Burnette said. "And she had a strange dialect. My grandmother said she was part Native American.”

According to the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, in the early to mid-1800s, when Hanah Stepp would have been practicing, slave ownership included directing treatment for sick or injured slaves.  African-American beliefs about the causes of illnesses, however, often differed greatly from the beliefs of white slaveholders and their physicians, who called for treatments that were typically much harsher than the natural remedies favored by enslaved people.

Mary Hayden, about 1919, with her daughter-in-law Hattie Payne Burnette and two of her oldest grandchildren, Lorenzo and infant Juanita.

Despite these conflicting beliefs, many enslaved midwives would deliver their mistress’ children and have their services sold to other white women in the area. After slavery was abolished, African-American women continued to practice as midwives and herbalists.

Though Mary Stepp Burnette Hayden told Burnette little about being enslaved, Burnette recalled one story that stood out. “She remembered when slavery was abolished. She told me that a man came on a horse and stood before her mother’s cabin door and read to them the Emancipation Proclamation. She was 5 years old. It would have been in January of 1863. It was one of the most wonderful things she told me.”

Mary Hayden and her mother most likely stayed in Black Mountain at the Stepp farm until the end of the Civil War in 1865, and perhaps in Black Mountain for a time afterwards, so that Mary could learn to read and write at a local school for former slaves. Hanah’s skills were not place-dependent, and she was able to help sustain the family – Mary Hayden and her two sisters, Margaret and Easter – as a midwife.  The family eventually moved to Polk County.

Mary married her first husband, Squire Jones Burnette, by the time she was 18. They had many children, but only two survived to adulthood – Mary O. Burnette’s father, Garland Alfred Andrew Burnette, and her Aunt Margaret. Mary Stepp Burnette and Squire divorced, and her second marriage to Andy Hayden was short-lived. In the 1910s, Mary Stepp Burnette Hayden moved back to Black Mountain, following her son, who had purchased a small farm in town.

Hayden would live in Black Mountain for the remainder of her life and continue to support herself as a midwife and herbalist. Mary O. Burnette, who was delivered by Hayden along with her six siblings, remembered of her grandmother, “She was small. Tiny woman. Maybe 100 pounds. Very small foot, but very hearty. Tough. And a very straight nose, small mouth. Intense, stern eyes. Bushy eyebrows.

“She had long straight hair that hung below her waist. Her hair was twisted into two ropes and those ropes were twisted tight at the back of her neck. I used to stand behind her chair and comb and brush her hair, and I’d have to keep backing up because her hair was so long.”

One day, Hayden went out to pick blackberries. As she was picking through the brambles a long, black thing fell down over her shoulder. Startled, she jumped away from the what she thought was a black snake. Upon closer inspection, she declared, tossing her head back and clapping her hands, “Gentlemen, it was just a braid of my hair!”

“That was Granny's manner of speaking when she wanted to make a point,” Burnette said.

Hayden dressed modestly, in skirts down to her ankles; rarely, if ever, buying new clothing. “She made her long white aprons by hand,” Burnette remembered. “She would sew a pocket that went all the way to the hem because that’s how she carried things. I never remember her having a purse, she would drop things in that apron pocket so she would have things handy, particularly her snuff ... She would reach down and pull the hem up so she could get her hand all the way down to the bottom of that pocket.”

(Editor’s note: In next week’s edition, Anne Chesky Smith writes about how the two African-American midwives in the Swannanoa Valley used their knowledge of herbs to treat blacks and whites.)