December 8, 2022

More Than a Midwife: The Future of the Georgia B. Williams Nursing Home

In the small town of Camilla, Georgia, three hours south of Atlanta, stands a significant landmark of Black women’s healthcare: the Georgia B. Williams Nursing Home. The home of midwife nurse Beatrice Borders—or Miss Bea, as she was known to her community—was the only known birthing center of its kind for thousands of Black women in the rural south during the Jim Crow era.

Born in 1892 in rural Camilla, Miss Bea came from a family of midwives. Her mother, the namesake of the maternity facility, was also a midwife and was the daughter of a midwife as well. Midwives have long been important members of the Black community.

At the beginning of her career, Miss Bea operated as a traveling midwife, but faced transportation issues and was concerned about the often unsanitary living conditions of expectant mothers. She sought to open her own facility to better ensure cleanliness and punctuality, for the betterment of the pregnant mothers. By 1940, Miss Bea and her mother decided to turn their own home at 176 Dyer Street into a birthing sanctuary for expectant Black mothers.

During the course of her thirty-year career, Miss Bea and her assistants helped deliver over 6,000 babies, persevering through local and systemic racism to provide critical healthcare services for women throughout the region. Unfortunately, the building has sat vacant since 2004 and is threatened by water damage and deterioration. The Georgia B. Williams Nursing Home was listed as one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2021.

photo by: Rebecca Fenwick

Exterior view of the Georgia B. Williams Nursing Home building at the time of the 11 Most listing in 2021.

photo by: Rebecca Fenwick

Interior view of the Georgia B. Williams Nursing Home building at the time of the 11 Most listing in 2021.

More Than Just a Midwife

Jacquelyn Briscoe knows this story well—not just through her work as executive director of the Georgia B. Williams Nursing Home nonprofit organization, but directly as the granddaughter of Miss Bea. Born in the maroon bungalow that also served as the birthing center, Briscoe saw firsthand as she grew up how important the home was. “In southwest Georgia as well as Camilla and Mitchell County, it was the only safe place and healthy environment where African American women could go to have their babies from 1941 to 1971,” Briscoe says.

Miss Bea and thousands of other Black women relied upon midwives to help deliver their babies in a tradition that spans back thousands of years across the globe. Black midwives delivered babies on plantations, often assisting with both the enslaved persons’ and slave owners’ wives’ births. Midwives continued to serve Black populations after the Emancipation Proclamation, primarily in the rural south, likely due to inequitable access to healthcare facilities

In the early 1900s the demographics of those using a midwife shifted. Upper and middle-class women primarily gave birth with the assistance of doctors and hospitals, while midwives were the only accessible option for those who could not afford that option or were not able to access care from doctors or hospitals due to structural racism. However, traditional midwifery practices continued to be passed down generationally just as Georgia B. Williams did with her daughter, Miss Bea. As medical care became increasingly privatized, out-of-hospital births (which typically included a midwife) began to drop from nearly 100% of all US births to 44% by 1940 and only 1% by 1969.

When it was open, the birthing center was one of a kind, providing mothers with quality healthcare as well as financial flexibility. “Women could go [to the Georgia B. Williams Nursing Home when they first found out] they were pregnant and knew when they were expecting,” Briscoe shares. “They could even make payments and installments so by delivery, they were squared away.” Many Black women could not afford hospital stays, and Miss Bea graciously took this into account. She accepted whatever payment women could afford, from cash payment of $20 to $50, to bartered goods and produce.

Women from across southwest Georgia sought care from Miss Bea, and the commonality of being born at Miss Bea’s Nursing Home created a deep sense of connection and community, where those who were born in the Nursing Home felt like family, and are known as “Bea’s Babies.” The former mayor of Camilla, Mary Jo Haywood, has been quoted as saying “This place virtually birthed a city.” The maternity facility was closed in 1972, a year after Miss Bea’s passing and after new health regulations were instituted by the state of Georgia. The building was operated as a daycare by Borders’ relative Arilla Smiley—a midwife who also had studied underneath Miss Bea—until 2004.

“A lot of people—and I’m saying not just African Americans—but people in general need to know the important history that all people across all sectors of life have played into making America what it is today.”

Jacquelyn Briscoe

Looking Towards the Future

Today, Black women nationwide are three to four times more likely to die in childbirth; in Georgia, those statistics are worse. As of 2022 the state is ranked last in maternal mortality, and a hundred other developed countries boast a lower maternal mortality rate than the Peach State. Maternal care conditions and statistics are grim for Black mothers across the state of Georgia, as well as the rest of the United States. It’s places like the Georgia B. Williams Nursing Home that offered Black women an opportunity at life, as well as health and safety, when it came to giving birth.

In light of the continued reality of childbirth for Black women, it is even more important to understand the history of midwifery and Ms. Bea’s work. Briscoe remains dedicated to doing what she can to not only preserve the birthing center, but Miss Bea’s legacy in history and beyond. “I would like the history of this establishment to be remembered from generation to generation not only as an African American contribution [to history], but to be accepted as a part of America’s history.” She says, “A lot of people—and I’m saying not just African Americans—but people in general need to know the important history that all people across all sectors of life have played into making America what it is today.”

Since the day care’s closure, the former birthing center has been boarded up and vacant. Located in a predominantly Black neighborhood of Camilla called the Hill, the building has suffered tremendously from water damage throughout the years. Preservationists and nonprofit leaders have a vision to convert the building into a museum and learning center, as well as a tribute to Miss Bea and her midwifery teaching. The home still contains custom maternity facility additions such as birthing rooms, nurseries, and recovery rooms. The birthing center was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2011 and the University of Georgia is working to digitize more than 4,000 of Miss Bea’s archival records.

photo by: Georgia B. Williams Nursing Home

On the exterior of the home you can still see the ghost of lettering indicating the home's former use.

photo by: Georgia B. Williams Nursing Home

Exterior view of the Georgia B. Williams Nursing Home in 2022.

In addition to being included as one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, in 2021 the Georgia B. Williams Nursing Home was also awarded $75,000 from the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund to help create an interpretive center and multi-use space, as well as a $5,000 grant from the Johanna Favrot Fund for Historic Preservation to hire an architect for a rehabilitation plan. In 2022, the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation placed the home on their Places in Peril list and the building also received a National Park Service Civil Rights Grant. Later that year, the home was the recipient of a $469,014 grant from the African American Civil Rights Grant Program through the National Park Service to aid in the ongoing restoration project.

In addition to fundraising, the nonprofit is focused on locating as many “Bea’s Babies” and “Bea’s Mamas” as possible, in the hopes of completing a documentary on their experiences at the birthing center for the future museum. Thanks to these ongoing efforts, Miss Bea’s legacy as a businesswoman and a crucial resource for pregnant Black women will persevere.

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Samantha de Leon is a MA student in Public History at the University of Houston. In the Summer of 2022 she was the Endangered Places Intern at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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