Digital-history mashup wishlist: mapping rural midwives over time

2009 October 17

Today’s thoughts on digital-methods history are inspired by conversations on Twitter about the API workshop for the digital humanities going on this weekend in Ontario:

sgsinclair anyone listening: please suggest mashups that would have the broadest appeal using existing DH resources & tools #apiworkshop

save4use What do you do when you find something in your#archives that, for yr own political reasons, you think deserves wider audience on the webs?

Here’s one, only a little pie-in-the-sky, based on a collection that has amazing possibilities if we can build tools to crunch the data:

Geotagging plus manuscript OCR plus Simile

I want to be able to upload an image of a historical primary source to an interface like the Google Docs OCR system, identify the people’s names and addresses who appear in it (town or specific address), identify the date of the source, and build a little Google map (or similar) of people whose whereabouts I know at at any given historical moment. For correspondence, I’d like to be able to identify sender and recipient so that I can do social network analysis.1 If this is implemented by someone else’s website, none of my uploads should be publicly available, because there are copyright issues aplenty. A system like CiteULike’s Personal PDFs would be handy.

Here’s why I want this mashup, with some background about an early-20th-century African-American female doctor who did difficult, amazing work.

Ionia Whipper

Ionia Rollin Whipper (1872-1953) was born in Beaufort, South Carolina, the daughter of writer Frances Anne Rollin and William J. Whipper, a Reconstruction-era judge in South Carolina. She graduated from Howard University’s medical school in 1903, making her one of the earliest African-American women to earn a medical degree. During the 1920s, she worked for the US Children’s Bureau, the first federal agency which focused specifically on maternal and child health; at the time, she was the only African-American member of the Bureau’s professional staff.2

Hospital births didn’t become common in rural areas until the mid-20th century, and even then, Southern hospitals were racially segregated, which meant that African-American mothers had to travel farther for a hospital delivery than white women did.

During the 1920s, Dr. Whipper traveled throughout the South on the Children’s Bureau’s dime, teaching rural midwives of color about sterile delivery techniques and birth registration. In a time and place where most rural children, white and African-American, were delivered by midwives in the mother’s home, Whipper’s work made a significant difference. At the time, most formally-trained doctors treated midwives with something between derision and open scorn. Dr. Whipper authored a short handout, the Syllabus of Instruction to Midwives, which was distributed in carbon-copy and mimeograph by the Children’s Bureau; it was one of the only handbooks on safe midwifery practice available.3

Tracking the peripatetic Dr. Whipper

In my research, Dr. Whipper is important because she taught midwives about the importance of filing a birth certificate for every baby’s birth they attended.

Without Dr. Whipper’s work, thousands of people born in the rural South during the early 20th century would have needed to rely on family Bibles for legal proof of their own age. And, particularly on the Gulf Coast, relying on privately-kept family records has had its own problems.

As far as I’ve been able to determine, between 1921 and 1929, Dr. Whipper worked in Georgia, Delaware, Tennessee, Texas, and Louisiana. And, like other Children’s Bureau field agents, she sent back reports nearly every week she was in the field, detailing exactly what she did and which towns she visited on which days. Those reports are sitting in archival boxes in the National Archives. Some are typed, and some are handwritten. Some tell stories of her experiences trying to get even basic respect from whites in the Jim Crow South, or of planning her interstate travel to avoid the humiliation of racially-segregated trains as much as possible.

These field reports are utterly fascinating, but it’s a bit hard to keep track of Whipper’s travels, let alone the locations of the other field agents at the same time. This is why I’d like to have a mapping service that’s combined with a timeline system. I want to know about the geographic reach of her training efforts. Some of the other field agents worked in the rural Southwest, where they were talking to Spanish-speaking midwives; I’d really love to map their travels as well.

Beyond my own interests

We can know a lot about Dr. Whipper, but researching individual midwives (like many history projects about relatively unknown women of color) is an exercise in the creative analysis of scarce sources.  If I were doing a different project than I am, and I had this tool I’m describing, I could process Dr. Whipper’s field reports to catalog the names of the rural “granny midwives” she worked with, the towns where these women lived, and at least one date when they were known to be practicing. With sufficient copyright clearance to make those records publicly accessible, they would be an absolutely wonderful source for African-American women’s history, and they’d be much more findable by genealogists, family historians, and local-history researchers.4

In many Southern rural communities, African-American midwives attended mothers of all races. Locating a town’s midwives during a particular time could provide insights into particular local communities with much more granular detail. Publicly-annotatable digital collections already show promise for this, as in this 1951 photo from Eastern Carolina University’s archives, where a commentor has identified one of her ancestors in a photo of a midwives’ group.5

Towards the future

As long as I’m practicing wishful thinking, here’s one for the history researchers: Imagine being able to run these tools without having to upload and OCR your own archival images. With a collaborative project drawing on sources from multiple archives, researchers who work on the history of midwifery could aggregate documentary information about individual midwives, then run them through a mapping tool, to answer questions that wouldn’t have been feasible before. It might simply be the new social history all over again, but it might not. Without the actual tools to play around with, historians won’t know for sure.

  1. Which is why I’m happy that the NEH is funding a workshop for humanities scholars on digital tools for social network analysis next summer. I’ve applied to attend; you should too. Applications are due by November 1.
  2. For more on the Children’s Bureau, see Kriste Lindenmeyer’s book A Right to Childhood and Molly Ladd-Taylor’s Mother-Work. For a memoir which gives a more personal look at Dr. Whipper (called “Sistonie” by family members), see Pride of Family, written by her niece Carole Ione.
  3. Dr. Ionia R. Whipper, “Syllabus of Instructions to Midwives,” undated (mid-1920s?), Midwives in Georgia binder, Box RCB-23779, Miscellaneous Files, Maternal and Family Planning, Georgia Department of Public Health, RG 26-26-63, Georgia Archives, Morrow, GA.
  4. African-American family history is a hard research problem because slavery uprooted children from their parents and obscured individuals’ last names. The more sources we can make accessible, the better.
  5. For more on the role of African-American midwives in Southern communities, see Gertrude Jacinta Fraser’s African-American Midwives in the South. I know for a fact that the Georgia Archives files contain photos of midwife groups from the early 20th century, which very well may have been taken by Dr. Whipper when she worked in the state.
5 Responses
  1. November 14, 2009

    Imagine what you could do with OCR, probate records, and some simple Python and/or Perl programs?

    It’s amazing how much we could accomplish with these technologies, but do you find a lot of historians still are technophobes?

    • November 16, 2009

      I don’t know whether “a lot” of historians are technophobes, precisely. Certainly there’s a resistance among some academic historians to online exhibits of various sorts, because of a perception that such efforts don’t meet the bar for “serious” “scholarly” work. But I’m thinking also of the ways Jill Lepore used GIS methods to write New York Burning, which is nothing if not a professional-grade scholarly work. Technologies of various sorts are just another method; think of how the availability of mainframe computers enabled the quantitative branches of social history in the 1970s. I think historians will catch on to the usefulness of any given digital-methods strategy once someone does a really well-respected project that would have been impossible without that method. (My methods section might as well be a love letter to full-text searching and OCR.)

      There’s something else about technology projects that I think goes more to the heart of the “technophobia” issue with historians. Close teamwork seems really essential for most digital-methods work, and also something historians don’t usually do unless they’re writing a textbook. Lepore required GIS support services for that project—something many historians don’t have access to at our institutions, or don’t think to learn when we’re being trained at the graduate level. We’re also often taught to work as individuals, when it’s very difficult in practice to be both a humanities-trained Ph.D. and also an expert-level technologist.

      It’s possible that some digital-methods projects are better as second books than as first books, because of the training and infrastructure that’s required for many digital methods. If that’s the case, we won’t begin to see the crop of books produced by today’s new digital methods for several years.

  2. June 18, 2010

    Would HIPPA regulations get in the way of studying the midwives, or would they maybe only affect this project if you were wanting to include information about their patients/clients? I know that medical confidentiality policies have been playing havoc with disability historians’ work in recent years.

    • June 18, 2010

      I can’t see how HIPPA regulations would touch my access to records about midwives, since most states at the time regulated their work through registration and licensing systems. States kept public records on midwives.

      As for information about their clients: it’s theoretically possible that an archivist with a zealous approach to HIPPA policies would seal off that information. (At the state-archives level, I’ve had… interesting times dealing with gatekeeping archivists, but that varies depending on how any given state’s lawyers interpret HIPPA and/or their local medical-privacy statutes.) Mostly, however, the Children’s Bureau papers don’t contain that level of detail, and when they do it was because ordinary mothers were corresponding with the Children’s Bureau about questions they couldn’t easily get answered locally.

      (For disability historians, the Children’s Bureau papers contain really interesting correspondence: for example, numerous inquiries about whether states were recording congenital “defects” on birth certificates. Most of those are policy-level discussions, not about individual people; I could point in the general direction of those, if that’s useful for you or anyone else.)


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