ST. PETERSBURG – Jayda Taylor-Herring always knew she wanted to deliver babies. She dreamed of being an obstetrician as far back as the sixth grade. With a little hard work and ingenuity, she now works as a woman’s health nurse practitioner and midwife for Bayfront Health.
The practice of midwifery dates back thousands of years. Nevertheless, in the 18th century, male surgeons asserted that their modern scientific techniques were better for mothers and infants, and pushed for heavy regulations in the United States and Canada.
However, this was not the case in the black community. Segregation turned midwifery into an essential profession.
Back in the day, Florida established institutions to expand the professionalization of midwives.
According to anthropologist Mollie Wilfert, the West Florida Midwives Institute at Florida A&M College (now University) emerged in 1933.
The institute invited midwives to attend a week of classes on subjects of childbirth. The majority of the participants were older African-American women. Nowadays there are fewer options for those that want a career in midwifery.
Despite some people’s efforts to convince her to follow another career path, Taylor-Herring continued to pursue her dreams. Thanks to a collaborative program with Bethune Cookman University and the University of Florida that helped minorities further their education, she was able to pay for college.
And although Taylor-Herring was able to graduate from the program at UF, it has been discontinued and will not admit any more students after this year, most likely due to lack of interest in the field.
For Taylor-Herring, midwives were part of the elite in the St. Pete community because African-Americans didn’t have anywhere else to go.
She’s right. During the Jim Crow era, medical care for African Americans in St. Pete was restricted to Mercy Hospital. From its start, Mercy struggled against different circumstances compared to the Mount Park Hospital —now known as Bayfront Health.
While Mercy Hospital had 35 beds available, Mount Park—exclusive to whites—had a 130-bed capacity. With the lack of beds available, this made midwifery medically essential in segregated St. Pete.
According to Wilfert, despite the state of Florida’s approach to ending the practice of midwifery, it remained an integral method of delivery among the black population, although the numbers did decrease.
In her study on midwifery in the state of Florida, she explained that by the early 1950s, the majority of Caucasian children were born in hospitals.
She reports that the number of registered African-American births attended by midwives in Florida decreased from 70.5 percent in 1935 to 46.7 percent in 1948 and 32.6 percent in 1953.
In contrast, only 9.4 percent of the white births were attended by midwives in 1935, 2.1 percent in 1948 and 0.9 percent in 1953.
Taylor-Herring feels it’s her duty to educate black people in regards to the medical field. She wants to get rid of the idea that hospitals and doctors are all to be distrusted.
“So many people still feel that they are treated differently because of their race or their socioeconomic status,” Taylor-Herring said. “I know that those things do still exist. I fight those things every day being a black woman in this field, but there are exceptions.”
For Taylor-Herring, being a midwife is the best job on the planet. Bringing a life into the world is a different and exciting experience every single time. The job never gets boring.
The most heartwarming moment for this midwife is to see a big muscular father with tears rolling down his face after seeing his baby for the first time.
“It’s priceless. They talk about how much protection they will have for this child,” she said. “That is a beautiful thing.”
This story is part of a 50-article series honoring black women in the Tampa Bay area.