The Salem Museum’s Midwife Records and Ship’s Flag
Posted By Rebecca Guest
Since 2011, Virginia Association of Museum’s Top 10 Endangered Artifacts Program has helped bring attention and awareness to museums and cultural sites across the commonwealth. For the past two years, the Salem Museum located in Salem, VA, has benefited from Top 10 press. The museum nominated artifacts in both 2012 and 2013. In 2012, VAM honored the Salem Museum’s records of midwife Georgianna Saunders. I recently talked with John Long, director of the Salem Museum. He updated me on the museum’s Top 10 participation.
Georgianna Saunders was an African-American midwife working in Salem during the early 20th century. Saunders recorded and maintained the birth records for lower-income families in the community, “Seemingly self-taught and with no official medical training, Saunders delivered hundreds of children, black and white, in Salem, and surrounding areas…Saunders typically delivered babies from the lower socioeconomic levels, and diligently kept records on every birth she attended.” The records were originally going to be used as kindling for a woodstove. A concerned donor discovered the records, realized their historical importance, and donated them to the Salem Museum.
Georgianna Saunders’ records were written in pocket-size registers and on several loose scraps of paper. The booklets are fragile and the museum is currently working to digitize the collection. John Long shared with me the current state of the records, “We are working to have the midwife records transcribed. This project is almost done. All of this work has been done by a volunteer. We are still working to create a database for the records. We want the general public to see and have access to these records.”
After being featured in the Top 10 Program, no less than 7 people contacted the museum and provided oral histories and memories of ‘Aunt Georgie.’ Long shared with VAM these interactions, “One man, Mr. Wright, came by to see if he and his siblings were in the registers. They were, and we made copies of the records for him, much to his delight. Interestingly, Saunders made an error on his record, listing his mother’s name as the baby’s. Mr. Wright then spent an hour with me sharing memories of growing up in Salem and reliving his youth through our exhibits, and promised to leave us his collection of local memorabilia in his will.”
Long praised the Top 10 Program and the recognition the Georgianna Saunders records have received. He wrote in his column in the Roanoke Times, “Some yellowed scraps of paper or old tattered textiles seldom garner media attention. You sometimes haves to wrap them up in a Top 10 list to get a reminder of the constant threat to the rare and informative items held in public trust.”
Last year, the museum nominated a ship’s flag flown during the 1944 invasion of Normandy on World War II troop transport USAT George W. Goethals. Once again, participating in the Top 10 Program brought incredible press to the museum. Long remarked, “The ship’s flag received great PR. One man that served on the ship after World War II visited us. He brought newsletters from the ship to share. We created a YouTube video for the flag. We’ve had great reaction to this video. Soldiers and families related to the ship have contacted us after seeing this video. This has brought additional materials on the ship to the museum.” The ship’s flag is currently on display in the Salem Museum’s D-Day exhibit. The flag helped generate a huge donation that helped fund this exhibit
John Long continues to praise VAM and the Top 10 Endangered Artifacts Program. He mentioned, “Our members and our community really rally our troops. Our historical society plays a huge role in participating in these types of programs. In our museum, we have a few hundred objects on display at any given time. But, in our back storage, we have almost 7,000 objects in our collection. We have nothing but good things to say about VAM and its help.”
Thank you to John Long and the Salem Museum for updating VAM on its past Top 10 nominations. For more information on the Salem Museum, visit its website at http://www.salemmuseum.org/.
1. The midwife records of Georgianna Saunders. Photo courtesy of the Salem Museum.
2. The ship’s flag from World War II troop transport USAT George W. Goethals. The museum set up a voting station during the 2013 Top 10 voting period. Photo courtesy of the Salem Museum.
Long, John. “Midwife’s precious records.” The Roanoke Times, September 13, 2012.
Long, John. Phone Interview with Rebecca Guest. Personal interview. Richmond, June 26, 2014.
Long, John. The Georgianna Saunders Midwife Records. Virginia Association of Museums Top 10 Endangered Artifacts Nomination Form, June 22, 2012.
Newton, Christina. “Virginia’s Top 10 Endangered Artifacts.” Lecture. Connecting to Collections Exchange, Salt Lake City, October 4, 2012.