An Alabama artist and activist is transforming a site once used for medical experiments on enslaved people.
Michelle Browder is best known for her powerful artwork and civil rights tour company, More Than Tours. Her stops include Montgomery’s former slave market and the old Greyhound bus station where 21 young Freedom Riders fought a vicious battle against an angry mob in 1961. When Browder was 18 years old, she discovered a 1952 painting of white men in suits studying a young Black girl on an exam table. Although it never sat right with her, it inspired her to learn more about The Mothers of Gynecology: Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey. These were the women who suffered under the alleged father of gynecology, J. Marion Sims, who performed a number of horrendous experiments on the enslaved Black women. On Browder’s civil rights tours, she’d pass a statue across the lawn of the Alabama State House, which always gave her chills because it honored Sims.
“Having to recount the history is bad enough. But having to see the iconography is triggering for someone like me who knows the truth about what happened,” Browder explained. She took initiative by creating a counter-monument called “The Mothers of Gynecology” that immortalizes the three women who suffered, located a mile from the Sims statue on the edge of downtown Montgomery.
“When I’d see that statue of Sims, I was infuriated,” Browder said in an interview. “How can this one person be elevated and amplified and honored as the father of modern gynecology but there’s no mention of these enslaved women, girls that were raped and trafficked? I said, ‘I’m going to change that. I’m going to erect a monument,’” she continued.
She made sure to maximize her platform by working with San Francisco-based artist Dana Albany to create the Mothers of Gynecology Monument, which was unveiled in Alabama on September 24, 2021. Now, with the help of her nonprofit’s fundraising, she’s been able to purchase the two-story building where Sims practiced. She plans to turn it into The Mothers of Gynecology Health and Wellness Clinic. This $5.5 million dollar project will transform the space into a training center for doulas and midwives and provide reproductive healthcare to Black women.
“It’s a museum that teaches the history of gynecology but also has a primary care unit upstairs where medical students from around this country can come. If there are some uninsured women that need support, we’re going to be able to give them that," Browder explained.
The museum/clinic will be located at 33 S. Perry St. in downtown Montgomery, Alabama, and the center is projected to break ground Mother’s Day 2023.
We stand with you, Michelle!
Photo: Andi Rice for The Washington Post via Getty Images/ Tamika Moore