Every year when the anniversary of Roe v. Wade rolls around, I am troubled by the loud silences in our triumphant tales of struggle. Our pro-choice creation myths—including true stories about 26-year-old Sarah Weddington facing the Supreme Court, the Jane collective of Chicago referring women to safe abortion care in the 1960s, and countless women who died from unsafe abortions—are largely narratives without the voices and contributions of African Americans.
As a history doctoral student who researches African Americans and abortion, the story I tell is quite different.
I frequently hear variations on these themes: “abortion is a white feminist thing,” “black people are against abortion,” or “abortion is black genocide.” When these ideas surface, I remind their proponents that almost a third of all U.S. abortions are currently performed on black women.
But the story must go farther back in time. And indeed, for much of American history, abortion was strongly associated with African Americans. During slavery, people of African descent were believed to have special knowledge of botanicals, such as cotton seed, tansy, and rue, that could cause abortion. Slave owners and doctors suspected that bondswomen curbed their births through abortions.
Historians can’t prove that definitively, and certainly poor health care, inadequate diet, and overwork set the stage for female slaves’ infertility and reproductive complaints. But we do know that, after slavery, white commentators traveled to the South and lamented that the black birth rate seemed to be slowing and sometimes blamed abortion. In effect, they were 19th-century forerunners to black nationalists who claimed abortion was a form of “race suicide.”
And we do know that, immediately before Roe legalized abortion in 1973, more than 90 percent of the women who died from illegal abortions in New York City were black and Latina. The human cost of making abortion illegal is evident in Jet magazine, once the most influential chronicle of the black middle class. It often detailed the deaths of black women such as 29-year-old Josephine Fuller of Washington, D.C.; the former beauty queen bled to death at home and left behind four children in 1953.
The doctor who performed Fuller’s procedure—also black—was charged in her death. While abortion opponents often charge abortion providers with conspiring to create a Nazi-style “Final Solution” for blacks, African Americans also provided abortions to black and white women. These providers ran the gamut from licensed physicians, healers who drew on herbs and community traditions, midwives, and untrained quacks. Notably, while the whites-only American Medical Association pushed the criminalization of abortion in the late 1800s, the all-black National Medical Association did not take a stand either way on banning abortion. Yet black providers often felt the combined sting of law enforcement and racism during the illegal era between the 1880s and 1973; Chicago’s Dr. T.R.M. Howard was charged repeatedly, and when Columbia, SC, physician Benjamin Everett allegedly performed an abortion on a white woman in 1916, prosecutors asked the woman what she was doing at “a nigger house.”
But the road to Roe was paved not just with the bodies of women, but with the legal activism of African Americans. We can’t talk about Roe without nodding to the 1970 Abramowicz v. Lefkowitz case that triggered the liberalization of New York state’s abortion law before Weddington’s date with the justices. On the legal team was Florynce Kennedy, the National Organization for Women co-founder who argued pointedly—and for the first time in any legal case—that changing the state’s abortion law was not merely a matter of physicians’ right to practice, but also women’s rights. Kennedy gathered women’s abortion stories at her kitchen table, but there were also other black power brokers at the metaphorical table. Noted civil rights attorney Napoleon Williams was an assisting counsel, and Percy Sutton—a former Freedom Rider, Manhattan borough president, and Apollo Theater investor—signaled his support. Civil rights and reproductive rights were not mutually exclusive.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, the first generation of black women elected to statewide office put reforming abortion laws on the legislative agenda—even in red states. In 1967, Dr. Dorothy Brown of Tennessee—a surgeon who ran back and forth between the hospital and General Assembly—introduced an unsuccessful bill to allow abortion in cases of rape and incest. While that initiative ultimately cost Brown her seat, Missouri Rep. DeVerne Calloway was elected in 1962, also co-sponsored a failed abortion reform but held office until 1982. Georgia’s Rep. Grace Towns Hamilton also pushed measures to legalize abortions in the first trimester in 1970 and 1971.
Their voices echo today in the efforts of black women state legislators such as Virginia Delegate Charniele Herring, who led the charge against her state’s proposal to require unnecessary “transvaginal” ultrasounds before abortion. They also echo in the grassroots mobilization of historically black colleges in Mississippi, whose students’ votes helped defeat the state’s dangerously sweeping personhood amendment in 2011. And they echo in the work of black abortion providers who challenge new abortion restrictions and serve in remote and underserved locations.
As a historian, I amplify these echoes as reminders that the abortion movement was never monochromatically white. We can ill-afford these silences at a time when women’s actions during pregnancy—whether choosing home birth, drug use, or merely delivering a stillborn child—are criminalized. These silences cannot persist when keeping abortion legal and accessible is a constant struggle. And, as anti-choice factions assert that the most dangerous place for black children is in their mothers’ wombs, we must acknowledge that these battles are waged on the terrain of black women’s bodies. And that’s a terrain I’m not willing to cede.
Cynthia Greenlee-Donnell is a doctoral candidate in history at Duke University, and she was a founding member of the Carolina Abortion Fund, the only nonprofit abortion fund in North Carolina. She is a guest blogger for the Strong Families project Echoing Ida.