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‘We Don’t Talk About It’: Black Artist Honors Enslaved Women Abused In the Name of Advancement of Medicine

“When you look at the experimentation that has happened to Black women, and Black people in general and to know some of the findings was from the torture of these people and to be overlooked the way that it has, it’s imperative that we change the narrative of health care,” said Michelle Browder, the artist behind the Mothers of Gynecology monument.

In the heart of downtown Montgomery, Alabama, stands a 15-foot-tall monument honoring enslaved women who endured pain and torment as part of medical experiments by James Marion Sims, the 19th century physician heralded as the “Father of Gynecology” for creating techniques still used today in women’s reproductive health.

In Sims’ 1884 autobiography, ‘The Story of My Life,’ he wrote about experimenting on the enslaved women: “I got three or four more to experiment on, and there was never a time that I could not, at any day, have had a subject for operation. … This went on, not for one year, but for two and three, and even four years. I kept all these negroes at my own expense all the time.”

In 1996, while Browder was in art school, she came across a painting by Robert Thom depicting an enslaved woman sitting on her knees on a table as Sims stood nearby. After learning the history behind the painting and the treatment of enslaved women used in medical experiments without their consent, Browder vowed to honor those women.

In 2016, Browder was ready to turn the monument she dreamed of for years into reality. She traveled to San Francisco, California, to collaborate with and learn from artist Dana Albany. Albany taught Browder how to weld metal pieces to be used for the monument.

“When I left San Francisco, I left with a full head, a half a pair of legs and a skeleton of two other bodies and I literally opened up my own shop, and completed the project in Montgomery, Alabama,” said Browder.

Browder describes the women as one having bantu knots, another is pregnant, and the third statue is Anarcha. “We need to talk about the rape and the trauma of Black women and women in general, but I’m highlighting Black women because these women went through some trauma without anesthesia and the procedures that were conducted on them,” Browder said of the enslaved women.

Browder says she’s spent $200,000 so far and there is still about $100,000 more to go before the final project is completed. The Mothers of Gynecology are part of what is intended to be the More Up Campus. In addition to the statues of enslaved women, the campus will include lodgings and a museum which will focus on the role enslaved women played in the history of medicine and the importance of social justice activism.

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