Monday, March 21, 2011

African Americans, Italian immigrants are indebted to the community midwife

Midwife, Mandy Jones Wheat (1892-1977)
Mandy Jones Wheat, the daughter of Joe Jones and Lizzie Banks was born December 15, 1892 in St. Helena Parish, Louisiana.  She was married twice.  Her first husband was Adam Gordon, Sr., and her second husband was Bass Wheat.  As a small child, genealogist, Antoinette Harrell, can remember Mandy as a "church mother" who also attended the old white church with the wooden benches. At first glance, one might think that Mandy, dressed all in white and seated with her cane, was sleeping, but as Antoinette recounts, she was paying attention, watching, and listening and would not say anything until service was over and as you walked by, she would gently stick out her cane to stop those who had been talking to correct them (All photographs shared by grandson, Michael Daniel).

I wonder what it must have felt like to look out over that congregation and remember that she birthed so many generations between 1930 and 1960 into the world.  Mandy was a midwife for at least thirty years.  Not only was she a midwife who delivered thousands of babies, but she was also a herbalist and healer in her community during the days when African Americans and Italian immigrants were not allowed to be treated in hospitals.

Antoinette first became curious about Mandy after interviewing her son, Bishop Willie K. Gordon, Sr. who shared what he could remember of her.  Fortunately, Antoinette felt a deep desire to learn more about Mandy especially because the story of the midwife is most often neglected by researchers.  "This is noteworthy history that would otherwise go unmentioned. How could you not talk about the midwife who did so much to bring lives into the world?" said Antoinette.  She could not find any records to document Mandy, so she posted what she had gathered from Gordon on Facebook.   Miraculously, Michael Daniel saw the post and responded that Mandy was his grandmother.

We are far from reaching the fullest potential of Facebook for genealogical research.  Hopefully, we can learn from the successful ways the Antoinette uses it to locate extended family and share her many research finds while in the field (Follow Antoinette on Facebook).  Antoinette called Michael and met with him at the Amite Branch Public Library where he shared a wealth of photos and midwife records of Mandy Jones Wheat.

Mandy delivered some of her grandchildren and thousands of other African Americans and children of immigrant Italians.  She would walk to their homes if they did not come to get her by mule pulled wagons.  She would stay at the homes of those she assisted sometimes for great lengths of time providing care.

Mandy rarely had a quite moment because she also tended those who were sick, and she was the only person in the area where people could find care.  "Mandy understood the herbs that it took to heal. She saved many lived with her wisdom and knowledge about herbs, tree bark, and tonics," said Antoinette Harrell.

Historical home of Mandy Jones Wheat in Amite, LA

Michael Daniel shared the fact that even after hospitals started treating African Americans, the community still kept going to Mandy because of the trust she had established during her many years of dedicated service.  It is important to understand as well that while Mandy was a very prosperous landowner, the community could not always pay her for her service using money.  They bartered using chickens and other items.  They were good neighbors who learned how to live and survive with each other using what they had.

During times when her family had little, she kept them from going without.  She was a female black farmer who owned her land and grew everything.  She raised livestock and grew fresh vegetables.  She  knew how to preserve meats and would call her family to "come down to d'house.  We got something," recalled her grandson, Eugene Edwards.  She would have smoked beef for them.   He remembers his grandmother giving his family their first cow.

Cow named Lillie Bell on Mandy Jones Wheat's place

She as affectionately called D'Mandy because of her dialect.  She would often use the letter "d" in front of words.  According to her grandson, Michael, this was a mixture of the English and Creole languages.  Michael shared his appreciation for the work Antoinette is doing to share the history of midwives, "I am glad someone is trying to preserve this history" which occurred at a time where African Americans and Italian immigrants could not find healthcare.  Michael's mother, Ruby Wheat Daniel, is the daughter of Mandy and also the person who kept the photographs and history before it was passed to Michael.  It was Ruby who taught her mother to read.
Ruby Wheat Daniel, shared by son, Michael Daniel

Michael even remembers some of the things he was given by his grandmother when he was sick:

  • boiled pine tree sprouts mixed with honey and lemon (colds)
  • bolied roots
  • boiled corn shucks
Stay tuned to this blog to learn more about Mandy Jones Wheat and other unearthed history. Also, be sure to join us for an upcoming Nurturing Our Roots BlogTalkRadio Show on April 12 where two grandsons of Mandy Jones Wheat will discuss the legacy of this prominent midwife.

If anyone knows the names of any of the people who Mandy Jones Weeks birthed or treated please contact us: 
Antoinette Harrell  504-858-4658
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  1. What a wonderful article and a wonderful legacy that she left!

  2. She sounds like a marvelous lady. What a blessing to have known her.
    Thanks for sharing the story.

  3. Great idea! I've discussed the midwives of my ancestors' community in Louisburg, NC with an elder-aunt of mine. I have it on my "to-do" list to one day try to learn more about the two ladies she told me about, and hopefully to see if they kept any records that might still exist. :)


  4. Angela, Hummer, and Renate....
    I am very pleased you took the opportunity to read about Many Jones Wheat. I just keep thinking about the lives she touched. I am sure many will come forward to share their memories about her. What a valiant lady she was.

  5. I loved this post as much as I loved Laurel Thacher Ulrich's book The Midwife's Tale. I'm glad she was an honored member of the community. Some early midwives were regarded with suspicion. My own daughter was delivered by a midwife, they are very common around here, and especially in Northern NH where there aren't many doctors.

  6. Thank you SupremeWellness!

    Wow, thanks Heather! I appreciate your respect for midwives. I will look for the book "The Midwife's Tale," as this is the first I heard it mentioned. Stay tuned, I understand that Antoinette has much more to share about Mandy.

  7. Great story! I thank you for sharing. I know there are many a persons who are so grateful for Ms Mandy Wheat.

  8. Thank you Ms Vicky! It is so wonderful also to discover how her children and grandchildren carry her legacy forward.


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