Katie Hall Underwood would probably shake her head in disbelief to find her name on a blog about strong women. But make no mistake, Katie Hall Underwood was a woman who empowered herself to bring new lives into the world on a remote coastal Georgia island. She was a strong woman in every fiber of her being.
Born as a descendent of enslaved ancestors on Sapelo Island, Georgia in 1884, Katie Hall became a midwife on the rural island which is now one of the last vestiges of Gullah/Geechee culture left intact along the Atlantic seaboard.
The Gullah/Geechee people came to America back in the 1800s from various ethnic groups in west and central Africa. All of them arrived as slaves. Because they lived their lives in forced isolation on the barrier Sea Islands and nearby Low Country mainland, they were able to retain their African customs. Their isolation also enabled their unique culture to survive, connecting them back to their African roots and allowing them to become a distinctive ethnic unit.
Technically speaking, Katie Hall was Geechee, Saltwater Geechee to be exact. The Gullah people were located in the Carolinas and the Geechee people settled in Georgia and northern Florida.
When Katie Hall was born, Sapelo Island had only been owned by the one family of Thomas Spaulding who purchased the island in 1802 and through the labor of 400 slaves coaxed the production of Georgia Sea Island cotton and sugar cane to unimagined productivity. Today the land still sports tidal salt marshes, upland maritime forests draped with Spanish moss, and sandy sea dunes bordering the Atlantic Ocean; the same topography for hundreds of years.
After the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War, Sapelo Island was no longer home to a productive cotton plantation due to the lack of available labor. The former slaves set up scattered free settlements with unique names like Hog Hammock, Raccoon Bluff, Shell Hammock, and Lumber Landing. It was to these communities that Katie Hall would serve her life’s purpose.
While Katie Hall had only a rudimentary education, she had also acquired a learning passed down from the generations before her about birthing babies. She became a legendary midwife on the island, delivering her first baby in the early 1920s and continuing to deliver babies until 1968, the year she turned eighty-four and electricity came to the island. Why I admire Katie Hall Underwood is that without modern drugs, electricity, or any medical education, she taught herself to use natural remedies to ease a woman’s labor in pregnancy. In her entire forty plus year career she delivered over a thousand babies and according to local lore, never lost one infant or mother; all this on an island largely forgotten to the outside world.
Katie recorded with diligence the name and date of every baby she helped to birth, in order to preserve family records. With the only means of transportation on the island to be by mule cart or on foot, Katie often walked miles from family to family helping to deliver babies. One account records the birth of two babies on the same day, where Katie walked the seven miles between the two families and then set about helping the second mother with her delivery.
Because cash was always in short supply, Katie – like many rural doctors, was often paid in the form of goods: food, or hand-sewn items, or possibly even hand-woven sweet grass baskets. As was her custom, she stayed for a meal with the family after delivering a baby and would often stay overnight if the weather was bad.
She did not become a midwife to gain recognition; she chose to become a midwife because there was a need to help the women of her island. Even after marrying William Underwood, Katie worked diligently to bring healthy babies into the world of Sapelo.
Today the over 8,000 acres of Sapelo Island are managed by the state of Georgia through the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. The island is still home to approximately 70 residents, mostly all descended from the enslaved Africans of 200 years ago, and whose homes are located within Hog Hammock on 434 private acres bequeathed to them by their ancestors. It is in Hog Hammock that you can find the resting place of Katie Hall Underwood in Behavior Cemetery; where the graves face east towards Africa, the ancestral homeland retold in story and in song.
Long ago she ferried babies into this world and placed them in the loving arms of their mothers. Today, the only visible recognition to Katie Hall Underwood is the ferry named after her that carries the commuters, school children, and tourists to and from Sapelo Island. The island is still only accessible by boat.
As the sun dapples the water and a dolphin breaks through the surface of Doboy Sound, the ferry passengers watch as his fin dips in and out of the water, perhaps in tribute to the last midwife of Sapelo Island.
** On a different note, you can read the New York Times article, http://tinyurl.com/mq8je7s about the present crisis facing the residents of Hog Hammock whose property taxes have jumped as much as 500% in the last two years. While McIntosh County, Georgia, claims the increased tax is justifiable, most of the residents can not afford the ludicrous increase and could be in danger of losing their homes. If this happens, could Hog Hammock eventually become another Hilton Head?