Black History Month: Honoring the work of a Virginia midwife named a ‘town hero’

Updated: Feb. 20, 2019 at 2:19 PM EST
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RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Records show, from 1930 to 1967, Anna B. Turner worked in Sussex County and traveled to at least four other counties and towns, helping families bring new life into the world.

“She was the midwife for the town, for the area,” explained Tawanna Green. “Because of her I am here.”

Green is one of Anna Turner’s 37 grandchildren; she is also my cousin.

In midwifery, the term is known as catching or receiving babies, Green was born in a small room in her family’s home, and Grandma Anna was there to make sure she and her mother were safe and healthy.

“Back then it was my parents bedroom, but when I grew up it was the laundry room, that’s how small it was," explained Tawanna. "Enough room for a washer a dryer and a freezer, and that’s the room I was born in.”

I am one of Anna B. Turner’s great-grandchildren. I never had the honor of meeting her, but through photos and stories from my family, I can’t help but beam with pride of her legacy.

“If we just look into our familial history we can see where we came from and the things that happened that really were the bridges that got us to where we are today,” said Green.

Grandma Anna was trained by the Sussex Health Department, but family says she had been working long before she was officially trained, and long before her work was recorded. Loretta Majette, who is also my cousin, has worked alongside Tawanna, and others to preserve her legacy.

“I remember the nights, holidays and weekends, my grandmother would grab her black bag. She cared more about what she did, than how much she was getting paid, she only charged 10 dollars back in those days,” Loretta wrote in a reflection. "The house was so lonely when she had to leave, but we knew she loved what she did, bringing a new life into the world.”

Loretta was raised by Grandma Anna, who took her and her sister in after Grandma Anna had already raised 11 children of her own, and was 56 years old.

“In her community she was loved by blacks and whites alike and she was well respected,” Loretta said.

Loretta remembers growing up in a home with constant visitors, people coming by to say thank you or just spend time with the woman who helped bring their children into the world. She also remembers spending time with her cousins, one of them, my father Larry, because Grandma Anna could leave at any time for a birth.

Loretta estimates that Grandma Anna received at least 1,000 babies during her career as a midwife. She was devoted, and wouldn’t just be present for a birth and simply come home. Grandma Anna would stay as long as a family needed.

“Here we are in Waverly, Virginia the closest hospitals were either Petersburg, Virginia, or Suffolk, Virginia, and that’s some 25-30 miles away,” explained Tawanna. “The cost of having a baby in the hospital was prohibitive, and then also sometimes we [African-Americans] weren’t allowed in the hospitals, so she was the option for us.”

As a provider for her own family, Loretta says Grandma Anna, was a “smart business woman,” she was known for having a black book, and standing outside of a local grocery store to collect any outstanding money for births, but she also accepted whatever the family could afford.

“Other times she came home with ham or eggs or whatever the family could afford," said Tawanna. "I think that is a type of compassion that’s been replaced by the dollar when it comes to health care.”

As she grew older, Grandma Anna’s work slowed down, but new generations of midwives emerged in the area.

“She was an example of other people we don’t know about because in rural areas midwives were crucial," said Bill Lohmann with the Richmond Times Dispatch. “They were totally unsung, people they helped knew them, but they went house to house, family to family doing this tremendous service.”

In 2016, Lohmann received an e-mail from Tawanna, sharing the history the Turner family had uncovered, and detailing how a family reunion had been dedicated to her legacy and work as a midwife. He felt it was important to share with the greater community.

He wrote a column on July 20, 2016, titled, “A Sussex County Midwife Gets her Due."

“What I like to write about, I call slices of life," said Lohmann. "If you create stories about real people that are in the public domain, in a way you are preserving history for somebody.”

The same year the column was published, Grandma Anna received her due from the Town of Waverly, the Virginia Affiliate of the American College of Nurse Midwives, The Virginia Midwives alliance and the Virginia House of Representatives, through certificates, proclamations and resolutions.

In a resolution from the Town of Waverly it states “Anna B. Turner is hereby highly commended and bestowed the permanent honor of being a ‘Hero of the Town of Waverly.’”

“Annie Batts Sills Turner Days in the Town of Waverly,” were observed July 15, 2016-July 17, 2016.

“She cared enough to help her people that were less fortunate than she was to bring into the world babies when they could not afford hospital stays,” said Majette. “She cared about people, she had so much compassion for people, she had so much love and that’s some of the things she taught us. She always wanted to help someone and this was her way of helping people.

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