Michelle Browder has been giving tours around the city of Montgomery, Alabama since 2016. But when she started More Than Tours, the landscape in the state’s capital looked a little different. “At that time, there was nothing in the city that speaks to the resiliency of Black women, of Black people, or the experimentations on Black folk,” says the Alabama artist. “There's all kinds of markers and iconography that speaks to the Confederacy.”
After five years, Browder got “tired” and stepped into action. Last month, with the support of Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed, the Black history scholar erected a 15-foot monument titled “The Mothers of Gynecology” paying tribute to three of the women—Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey—who were violated in the name of medical science. While James Marion Sims has been lauded as the “father of modern gynecology”—a statue of him stands in front of the Capitol in Montgomery and was once erected in New York City’s Central Park—little has been said of the enslaved women he exploited and experimented on to reach his renown.
In doing her research, Browder knew that Anarcha was from a plantation in Montgomery, while Lucy and Betsey were from Macon County, Alabama. “But there was nothing to speak to these Black women. And what they endured,” Browder says. “I wanted a monument that speaks to them and how the legacy of slavery continues to follow us, even today, through healthcare.”
With this ammunition, Browder set out on a quest to bring their names and contributions the attention they deserve, setting out to Las Vegas , San Francisco, and Los Angeles, with the goal of learning how to weld. Along the way she picked up critical skills from Burning Man artists like Dana Albany, and collected scrap metals from supporters who organized metal drives. With new skills and scrap metal in hand, Browder was able to return to the south and begin work on erecting the new monument.
Browder was deliberate in her construction, consulting other artists and getting help from people like Deborah Shedrick who studied Browders sketches, and added the hole, representative of the fistula in the monument’s largest statue. Sims, a slave owner, has been credited with creating a solution for a complication experienced during pregnancy called vesicovaginal fistula, defined as an abnormal opening that forms between the bladder and the wall of the vagina. He’s also given credit for additional procedures and medical tools.
“There’s a speculum, sims retractor,” Browder says of some of the monument’s details. There's also a representation of the sutures that Sims has been recorded as using on these women without consent or any form of medical assistance to ease the pain. That’s important, Browder says, because Black women are still three to four times likely to die due to the complications of childbirth, and no one is talking about it. “We are losing mothers and the infant mortality rate is very high in Black communities. We're losing our people. And there's a reason for it.”
Browder hopes the art installment fosters more dialogue about what’s happening to Black women and helps to dispel the notion that Black women have a higher tolerance for pain or don't feel pain at all. “It still trickles down into the curriculums today so we want to change that narrative, we want to change the curriculum.” Browder is extending that mission to Southern University, an HBCU in Shreveport, Louisiana where she’s partnering with faculty to create a curriculum that will change the dialogue on medicine and how maternal health and gynecological issues are taught.
Next year, in the city of Montgomery, two days, February 28 and March 1, will be dedicated to their contributions. “We need to speak to the individuality of these women,” Browder insists. “We need to speak to their humanity.”