Nearly 11,000 voters and an independent panel of experts have recognized a rare set of documents in the archive of the Salem Museum as one of the state’s most endangered artifacts in a museum collection. The Midwife Records of Georgianna Saunders received the distinction from the Virginia Association of Museums and the Virginia Collection Initiative in the state’s second “Most Endangered Artifacts” poll.
The Saunders documents join artifacts from across the state in the Top Ten List, which was designed to recognize and publicize the threat to museum collections in the Commonwealth and the District of Columbia. Other regional museums which were so recognized included the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke, the Crab Orchard Museum in Tazewell, and the Alleghany Historical Society in Covington.
Online voting, open through the month of August, was one consideration in determining the Top Ten designation. The Salem Museum finished third statewide, after Alleghany and the Wilton House museum in Richmond, with 11,000 votes. More than 120,000 were cast during the program.
Although the Top Ten designation is merely honorary and carries no financial award, the Salem Museum is very pleased to receive it. “This has been a great program for us, and we are very happy to have raised awareness of these documents,” said John Long, Salem Museum director. “We were pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming support we garnered.”
The Salem Museum is located at 801 East Main St. in Salem, and is open Tuesday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. No admission is charged for the Museum galleries.
Submitted by John Long, Salem Museum.
Read on after the jump for more information about Georgianna Saunders.
Georgianna Saunders served Salem and the surrounding region as a midwife from about 1916 to about 1940, delivering hundreds of babies. A prominent member of the African American community in Salem, her clientele included all races, but concentrated on the lower socioeconomic levels who could not afford a physician or hospital. Her records, dutifully kept in pocket-sized registers, form a unique demographic look into Salem’s population during her career.
“When we nominated the Saunders records, we thought few people had ever heard of Georgianna,” noted Long. But soon after the voting started, local residents began to contact the museum to ask questions or share stories. “We talked to seven or eight of ‘Aunt Georgie’s Babies’ over the past few weeks, and heard of others. We really touched a nerve in the community.”
Among the details uncovered by the museum was the fact that Saunders delivered more babies than even the registers reveal. “Apparently she was trusted by physicians in town,” said Long. “They would call her in, maybe when labor was expected to be lengthy, and she’d assist in the birth.” In those cases, the doctor filled out the paperwork, not the midwife. “So we’ll never know how many babies she actually brought into the world, but it had to be a considerable number” he noted.
Long intends to continue to collect oral history of Saunders, and requests anyone with memories of her to share them with the Museum. He would especially enjoy hearing from others whom she delivered, and would be most interested in obtaining a photograph of the midwife. “To our knowledge no photos of her exist, but we’d love to find out otherwise.”
The Museum’s long-term plan for the records, which were rescued from a woodstove’s kindling pile by a concerned supporter several years ago, is to conserve the documents and then have the information they contain transcribed into a public database. “The records are too fragile to handle as they are, but we’d love for the public to have access to the info,” said Helen Johnson, Assistant Museum Director.
We have more on the Salem Museum in this online guide to the museum.