Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
Dr. Yulonda Eadie Sano and Dr. Cherisse Jones-Branch are the editors of the recently announced Rural Black Studies Series from the University of Arkansas Press, which seeks to expand the historical record on rural Black people who opted out of the Great Migration, or otherwise ended up in rural spaces outside of the South.
Enjoy our conversation about Black midwifery in Mississippi, 20th century activism among Black women in Arkansas, and the wide-open field of Black agrarian history, below.
Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: How did you each come to rural and agricultural history? What compelled you to that type of scholarship?
Dr. Yulonda Eadie Sano: I am from the rural South – Mississippi – and I was always aware of this exodus of African Americans out of the South, even before I studied the Great Migration. I have family in both the urban Midwest and the rural South, so I saw the Great Migration as a story about my family. While I was exposed to urban history and migration studies in my college coursework, I was also curious about African Americans’ lives in rural spaces – those who did not migrate. So, I turned to this research for my own work.
Dr. Cherisse Jones-Branch: I came to rural and agricultural history because I wanted to know more about home demonstration agents and their work in agrarian communities. What I discovered was this entire world of Black women who were dedicated to augmenting the quality of African American lives in rural spaces at a time when few others were interested. I also uncovered stories about women who still today are well-regarded in these small rural communities because of their activism, though no one outside of these areas had ever heard of them. I was intrigued by the challenge of locating resources about their lives and labors that are not typically found in traditional archives. While there is a robust body of scholarship on rural women, Black women’s stories rarely appeared and I wanted to rectify that.
DY: Dr. Jones-Branch, you’ve written about activism among rural black women in Arkansas in the 20th century in part because they’ve been written out of the historical record. Why are these historical figures so understudied, and why did you choose their activism as a lens for understanding them?
CJB: They are understudied because few ever imagine that rural Black women, especially those who are poor and undereducated, are capable of making significant historical contributions. That is to say, most only imagine them as agricultural laborers, and many of them were. However, more than a few of them were formally educated. And even if they were not, we don’t consider the native intelligence they possessed that afforded them a particularly fine-tuned understanding of the environment in which they lived in the rural Jim Crow South.
DY: You write that you want to understand how the Black women who stayed in the rural South throughout the Great Migration evaluated their lives. I know this is an impossibly large question, but how would you summarize the answers you found? How did these women negotiate a place in rural Arkansas?
CJB: I found that the Black women who remained in the rural South were leaders in their communities. They were members and leaders of home demonstration clubs and the Arkansas Association of Colored Women, among other organizations that were dedicated to improving and enhancing the quality of life in rural Black communities.
Black women were also clever. They understood that cooperation across racial lines was critical to the success of their activism in rural communities. Black agricultural laborers were important to large landowners. Black women skillfully leveraged their understanding of these laborers’ needs to secure important concessions to help bolster educational, economic, and health outcomes. However, their efforts also helped landowners by discouraging outmigration to urban areas. Another understudied part of their activism involved encouraging rural Black people to become politically engaged at a time when it might cost them their jobs and their lives.
DY: Dr. Sano, I want to hear about your research on Black midwives in Mississippi, and why the state had such an ambivalent relationship to their work. It seems that, throughout the South, governments and healthcare systems were both dependent upon and reluctant to acknowledge the birthwork performed by “lay midwives,” of whom 97% were black. What gap were those women filling, and why was the state so hesitant to admit to its reliance?
YES: It’s complicated, and in some ways counterintuitive, but the nature of Jim Crow was often paradoxical. Physicians argued that attending childbirth was within their purview and that continuing to rely on lay midwives contributed to high maternal and infant mortality rates. However, there were shortages of physicians in both rural America, in general, and the South, in particular. Thus, public health officials and physicians – who were overwhelmingly white – had no immediate, viable solutions that did not involve African American lay midwives. This forced them to rely upon people that white society had deemed inferior.
DY: What did you learn about the actual lives of the women performing this work that stood in such fraught relation to the state? How did midwifery compare to the other options for Black women in this time and place?
YES: The practice of midwifery did not preclude women from having other occupations – for African American women this usually meant agricultural labor or domestic service. Midwifery was seen as a “calling.” Those who were drawn to it performed services regardless of families’ ability to pay. That dedication impressed me, and it was not something I thought about before working on the topic.
DY: What is the vision for the Rural Black Studies series? What do you hope it accomplishes and what kinds of questions do you hope it answers?
YES: Dr. Jones-Branch and I are both historians of the rural South, so we are looking forward to scholarly work that expands beyond the region. I think books in the series will speak to the diversity of African American stories – obstacles, ways of thriving, ways of surviving. I also look forward to scholarly work that will broaden the field in ways I’ve yet to imagine.
CJB: I hope the Rural Black Studies series attracts scholars who recognize that not all African Americans quit the South. And to be clear, I hope they recognize that Black people lived in rural areas outside of the South. We need those stories too. However, many chose to remain in the South because of their connection to the land and its history. This demands a rethinking and reframing of how we understand rurality and Black people’s place within it in more nuanced and complicated ways. Not all rural Black people were poor, landless, agricultural laborers. More than a few were deeply politically engaged within their communities. Some even developed and led all-Black communities. I think with this in mind the Rural Black Studies series will interest scholars who want to explore African American agrarians’ experiences in ways that focus on not only the oppression they endured but also the successes they realized in rural spaces.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.