Saturday, May 10, 2014

A Mother’s Gift: Delivering the Next Generation With Her Bare Hands

For this Mother’s Day, I want to dedicate this special story to all of the American mothers of African descent. This story is your story; the experiences are universal. We can’t forget the incredible strength and resiliency of our enslaved foremothers. It is upon their shoulders that we stand.

Louisa “Lue” Bobo Danner
Jan. 21, 1842 – July 5, 1921

On June 16, 1898, sitting in a lawyer’s office in Batesville, Mississippi, with her son Alfred by her side, my great-great-grandmother, Lue Bobo Danner, gave the following testimony as she persevered to get a Civil War widow’s pension from the federal government. Rejected two times, this strong-willed, former mulatto house slave, who was my maternal grandmother’s maternal grandmother, was determined to get what she felt was entitled to her.

Grandma Lue stated confidently, “I claim pension as the widow of Edward Danner who served as a soldier in Company I 59 U.S. Volunteer Infantry . . . He died on a Saturday between midnight and morning about the 15th of September twenty one yrs ago last September.  It will be twenty-two yrs. this coming Sept . . . I have had eight children by said Edward Danner, all of them are living . . . They have had all the ages of my children set down in the Bible but it got destroyed and the little Bible I have now  got some of the ages in it.  I had no doctor when they were born.  My mother Clarissa Bobo was the midwife and is dead.

After reading that last sentence, my first emotion was that of sheer excitement. Grandma Lue’s deposition identified my great-great-great-grandmother – my mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother. My second emotion was of me feeling hugely blessed to find out through documentation that she was a midwife who delivered her grandchildren, including my great-grandmother, Mary Danner Davis (1867-1932). Grandma Clarissa had delivered the next generation with her bare hands.

Born into slavery c. 1823 in Laurens County, South Carolina on David Boyce’s farm, Grandma Clarissa became the midwife on the Bobo farm. African-American midwifery was deeply rooted in West Africa; African women transplanted their extensive knowledge of birthing, as well as medicinal botanical roots, into American society.  In many African cultures, one woman is commonly known as the midwife of the village. Perhaps Grandma Clarissa learned her techniques from her mother, Matilda, or her maternal grandmother Jenny, who was of Fulani ancestry maternally and was born around 1765 in Virginia. Grandma Jenny was also enslaved on David Boyce’s farm. Interestingly, Fulani girls throughout West Africa are taught at an early age that it is shameful to show any fear of childbirth (source). Clarissa took her unique skills with her when David Boyce gave her and others to his son-in-law and daughter, Dr. William & Margaret Boyce Bobo, who settled in nearby Cross Keys in Union County.

With a multitude of other unearthed historical facts, I closed my eyes and imagined what could have occurred on that sunny Saturday on May 15, 1858, the day 16-year-old Grandma Lue, who had long, black hair that reached the floor, gave birth to her first child.

This is that mental picture.

As Grandma Lue walks slowly towards the dinner table to serve Dr. Bobo and his Saturday guests, she drops the contents in her hand on the floor, without caring at all that the broken dishes may anger Ms. Margaret. A contraction hit her like a bolt of lightning.

“Oh my! I think my baby is coming!” Grandma Lue expresses, holding her stomach and feeling water trickling down her legs.

Hearing the sounds of breaking dishes crashing against the floor, Margaret Bobo rushes in and shouts loudly, “Gal, did you just break my expensive dishes we had imported in from Europe?”

“I’m sorry, Ms. Margaret. I believe my baby is coming! My water just broke,” exclaims Grandma Lue.

Margaret responds uncaringly, “Well, Hannah can clean this up. Go on over to your Momma’s cabin. Hannah and Sallie can finish serving our hungry guests.”

One of the Saturday guests, Elijah Wilbourn Jr., quietly observes from the dinner table. He was in South Carolina for three weeks from Como, Mississippi to wrap up some loose ends as he sells his remaining properties there in Union County. He and his wife Elizabeth Duggan had migrated to Panola County, Mississippi during the spring of 1841.  Elijah visits his home state about twice a year, traveling hundreds of miles for days on horseback. Quick stops to Grandma Clarissa’s cabin on those trips resulted in the conception of her first two children, Grandma Lue and her brother, Eli. Not surprising, his nonchalance displayed his non-recognition of his arriving grandchild.

Elijah Wilbourn Jr. (1810-1878)

Pacing in pain towards her mother’s cabin, Grandma Lue prays incessantly, “Lawd, please don’t let me lose my first-born child! Please don’t let me lose my baby!”

Her mother sees her, runs to her aid and grabs her arm hard, and helps her back to her cabin. Uncle Eli and their brother Uncle Giles rush over to assist Grandma Lue over to their mother’s birthing sanctuary in her cabin, a hard wooden table.

“Jenny, run and go get your Aunt Caroline,” Grandma Clarissa instructs her daughter. Aunt Caroline is Clarissa’s sister.

She continues to yell additional orders, “Eli, take your sisters and brothers outta here now and make sure you feed Palina! George, go tell Massa to send word over to Mack that his baby is coming. Make haste now!” George is Clarissa’s husband.

Mack Ray is a 24-year-old farmhand enslaved on the plantation of Rev. Thomas Ray, a Baptist clergyman and Dr. William Bobo’s neighbor. Mack and Grandma Lue had been allowed to jump the broom months earlier, a marriage custom often associated with a Ghana, West Africa tradition of waving broom sticks above the heads of newlyweds and their parents. Rev. Ray permitted Mack’s many visits to his young, strong-willed wife.

With her sister Caroline’s assistance, 35-year-old Grandma Clarissa proceeds to do what she does so well – deliver babies. However, this birth was special – very special. She was delivering her first grandchild.

After several hours of labor, a baby boy enters the world, as Mack Ray sits outside the cabin door waiting patiently for the birth of his first child. The infant boy was named James Robert, who was called Jim.

Ten months later near Como, Mississippi, Grandma Lue’s water breaks for a second time on Tuesday morning, March 29, 1859. Her second baby is coming. They had recently arrived in Mississippi six months ago. Dr. William Bobo decided to sell his South Carolina farm and move to Panola County to be near other family who had been in Mississippi for several years.

Grandma Clarissa delivers her second grandchild into the world, another healthy infant boy.

Exhausted and wet with sweat from the delivery, Grandma Lue says, barely audible, “Let me hold my baby.”

She further expresses, with tears flowing down her face, “He is so beautiful. My heart breaks so bad that Mack ain’t here to see him. We gotta endure so many hardships as slaves. Breaking up families ain’t right and just plain mean! Oh, Mack!”

Grandma Clarissa nods affirmatively, as her eyes begin to water. She manages to respond lovingly, “I know, baby. I know. But we can’t let it break us. We was built to last. Freedom is a comin’. I sho believe dat!”

A brief silence follows. Then, Grandma Clarissa asks, “Whatcha gonna name this beautiful boy?”

“Imma name him Mack. He will neva lay eyes on his Daddy but at least he will have his name,” says Grandma Lue, smiling down at her new baby boy.

Mack Danner (1859-c.1910)
(Picture courtesy of the late Dorothy Danner West) 

Unfortunately, before Dr. Bobo, his family, and slaves packed up and left South Carolina, Rev. Thomas Ray, who considered himself a Christian, didn’t feel it was necessary to sell one of his valuable young male slaves so that a family would not be separated. Grandma Lue never saw Mack Ray again.

However, little did she know at the time that Dr. William Bobo would go back to Cross Keys, South Carolina later that year to handle some business and return to Mississippi with a 27-year-old, dark-skinned, regal-looking, 5 ft. 8 in. tall, brave man named Edward he purchased from Nancy Bates Danner, the widow of Thomas Danner Jr., before she and her adult sons moved to Grant County, Arkansas.

Edward and Lue fell in love. Dr. Bobo permitted a jump-the-broom marriage ceremony in front of the big house for them on Christmas Day, 1860. The slave minister on the plantation, named Squire Bobo, married them. Edward also claimed fatherless Jim and Mack as his own, and they took his surname. He and Grandma Lue together would have eight more children. Grandma Clarissa was there front and center for every birth.

On Wednesday, August 26, 1863, third child, Alfred Danner, was born.

On Thursday, June 15, 1865, fourth child, Alexander K. Danner, was born.

On Tuesday, November 12, 1867, fifth child, Mary Danner, was born. Mary was my great-grandmother and Grandma Clarissa’s first granddaughter. Mary was also the first to be born free.

On Friday, May 14, 1869, sixth child, Frances Danner, was born.

On Saturday, June 10, 1871, seventh child, Laura Danner, was born.

On Tuesday, May 13, 1873, eighth child, Martha “Mattie” Ella Danner, was born.

On Friday, July 16, 1875, ninth child, Phillip Isaiah Moseley Danner, was born. He was named after a Como, Mississippi school teacher.

On Wednesday, November 15, 1876, tenth and last child, Edward Danner Jr., was born. His father had recently died on September 15, 1876, exactly two months before his birth, from stomach ailments he contracted from fighting with the Union Army in the Civil War.

The Danner Daughters: Mary, Frances, Laura, and Mattie

As a man, I can’t even begin to imagine how painful natural childbirth must be, yet Grandma Lue endured it ten times, with Grandma Clarissa at the foot of the birthing table. Infant mortality rates among enslaved women were very high, but Grandma Lue didn’t lose a single child. I’d like to think that her mother, having the power of being the midwife, played a major role in that. All of Grandma Lue’s ten children lived to adulthood, married, and had families of their own, giving her 67 grandchildren, including my maternal grandmother Minnie, before she passed away at the age of 79 on July 5, 1921. What a mighty great gift Grandma Clarissa Bobo gave to her daughter! Happy Mother’s Day!

9 comments:

  1. What a great tribute. Outstanding!!

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  2. Love your History Moments about your Family Melvin! You Keep us inspired! What a beautiful Mother's Day tribute.

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  3. Awesome, Awesome, Awesome! Magnificently awesome.

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  4. Wonderful history and story combined. A moving mother's day post!

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  5. Thank you sharing such a wonderful story! A most touching Mothers Day tribute!

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  6. What a magnificent account, Mel. Thank you for sharing this mothers day story.

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  7. What an excellent story! Thank you for sharing.

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  8. Great story. I had 3 natural childbirths and it's hard work but not the horror we see in movies. I'm sure your great grandmother and her mother were an unbeatable team by the time they got to 10.

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