The statue of a doctor who experimented on enslaved women still stands in Alabama. But now there’s also a monument to his victims.
By Linda Matchan
October 2, 2021 at 6:00 a.m. EDT
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Michelle Browder is a Black artist and activist who runs a civil rights tour company called More Than Tours — so named, she says, because "it's an experience." A sobering experience: stops include historical lynching sites, the city’s former slave market and the old Greyhound Bus Station where 21 young Freedom Riders were viciously beaten by an angry mob in 1961. Still, no historic site on the tour riles Browder as much as a statue on the lawn of the Alabama State House. Not the one honoring Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy and defender of slavery. It’s the one across the lawn, commemorating a 19th-century physician most people have never heard of: J. Marion Sims, the so-called “father of modern gynecology.” “Having to recount the history is bad enough,” explained Browder, who said her heart races every time she swings her tour bus past it. “But having to see the iconography is triggering for someone like me who knows the truth about what happened.”
In the mid-1840s, Sims performed torturous experimental surgeries on approximately 10 enslaved young Black women, without anesthesia or their consent. (He sought consent from their owners.) An enslaver himself, Sims was credited with curing a distressing and humiliating complication of childbirth known as “vesicovaginal fistula” — a hole between the bladder and vagina — and developing other gynecological procedures and tools, including a type of speculum.
In recent years his legacy has been scrutinized by scholars and debunked. They’ve noted that the type of speculum he claimed to invent had long been in use by others and that some of procedures he utilized were not really his, or were dangerous. Many have also decried the racism and sexism inherent in Black women being used as guinea pigs.
Others have linked the story to the national debate over monuments to Confederate history: Protesters successfully lobbied for another statue of Sims to be removed from New York’s Central Park in 2018.
But the statue in Montgomery probably isn’t going anywhere. In 2017, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) signed legislation barring monuments from being removed if they’ve been on public property more than 40 years. (This one’s been there since 1939.)
“What am I going to do to change the narrative?” wondered Browder, 50, who’s been troubled by the Sims experiments since she first learned about them 25 years ago as a student at the Art Institute of Atlanta. On Sept. 24, she unveiled her answer.
Browder’s response to the Sims statue is a commanding counter-monument called “The Mothers of Gynecology” that immortalizes three of the women — known as Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey — who went under Sims’s knife in a ramshackle structure he grandiosely called the “Negro Hospital.” It was there, behind the brick building where he took care of White women, that he performed 30 surgeries on Anarcha alone.
In Browder’s rendering, the women are proud and defiant. Anarcha is a towering presence, rising 15 feet high — nearly double the size of the bronze monument to Sims, which has been estimated to stand eight feet tall. “Never again will anyone look down on these women,” Browder said. “This monument is meant to recognize and amplify the voices of the women used in experiments that have led to breakthroughs in gynecology today.”
Sculpted of steel, each of the figures wears a collage of discarded metal objects “because these women were discarded,” said Browder, who worked with a team of artists in Montgomery and San Francisco to create the armature, learning from them how to weld.
Many of the materials were contributed by friends and tour clients after she put out a call for metal items. They donated chains, hinges, chandelier pieces, candlesticks, serving
platters . . . even a shovel, the blade of which now adheres to Anarcha’s thigh, as a way “to honor sharecroppers,” Browder said. She fabricated other metal pieces herself that link the mothers’ stories to their ancestors, including silhouetted images of kidnapped Africans crammed into stowage on slave ships.
Anarcha has a gaping hole through her midsection; her womb stands alone nearby, made of gold mesh and containing objects that would make any woman shudder in this context — needles, medical instruments, scissors, cut glass. “Anything sharp, any object that looks like it could harm you,” said Deborah Shedrick, a Montgomery artist recruited by Browder to be the womb-maker. “I wanted you to experience the physical pain, the emotional pain, the spiritual pain.”
Lucy, who stands nine feet tall, wears her hair in Bantu knots to convey that “Black women are stigmatized for wearing their hair in natural coils,” Browder said. Betsey, at 12 feet, is pregnant, signifying that Black women are more likely to die of complications from childbirth than White women, and referencing other health disparities. And she wears a crown of speculums.
“I made all of their jewelry to help bring humanity to them,” Browder said. “The condition they suffered from alone is demeaning.” As was the way they were treated by Sims, who welcomed other doctors to watch the experiments and seemed blind to their misery. Lucy, he wrote in his autobiography, “bore the operation with great heroism and bravery.”
“The style of the monument seems so utterly appropriate,” said J.C. Hallman, a New York author and journalist who advised Browder on the project; he’s working on a dual biography of Anarcha and Sims that was recently acquired by Henry Holt. “It’s the perfect combination of getting the history right and getting the art right.”
The statues of the women have been installed on a large pedestal on the edge of downtown Montgomery, just over a mile from the Sims statue. Browder, who also runs a youth empowerment initiative, sees the monument as the first stage of a campus she’s creating that will house a park, art gallery, resource center and student travel center. The land — about two blocks long — is privately owned by the Faith Crusade Montgomery Rescue Mission, the organization founded by her parents in 1992 to help formerly incarcerated people with housing and other needs, and to alleviate hunger and homelessness in the broader community. She is raising money through her tours, donations and grants.
Browder is a strong and spirited presence whose signature look is huge red cat-eye glasses “to see history through a different lens.” Her artwork, much of it mixed media, can be found around Montgomery in museums, galleries, even on the street. Last year she mobilized a squad of volunteers to paint a bold Black Lives Matter mural she’d designed around the downtown Court Square Fountain, where enslaved people were bought, sold and traded.
Even her tour bus is a kind of gallery on wheels, with a curated assemblage of civil rights-related items on the dashboard. Red eyeglass frames. African masks. A print of artist Hiawatha D.’s painting of Rosa Parks’s mug shot after her arrest during the Montgomery bus boycott.
Her tours are another artistic medium for Browder, and Montgomery offers lots of raw material. The city of 200,000 is still trying to come to terms with its identity as both the “cradle of the Confederacy” and “birthplace of the civil rights movement.” It’s a city that commemorates Confederate Memorial Day yet proudly welcomes thousands of international visitors to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the country’s first memorial dedicated to enslaved Black people and lynching victims.
“Michelle has brought a lot of thought to how we as a community and those who visit Montgomery reconcile this place in history,” said Montgomery Mayor Steven L. Reed, the city’s first Black mayor. “Her monument is important, and it recognizes the pain of these women who were experimented on. It’s part of being honest about truth-telling in this country, where we have memorials built to people when maybe we shouldn’t.”
History is not just academic for Browder and her family; it’s in their DNA. Her father, Curtis Browder, 79, was the first Black chaplain for the Alabama prison system; he ministered to Robert Chambliss, the white supremacist convicted of murder in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham that killed four young girls in 1963. Her aunt, Aurelia Browder Coleman, was an activist arrested multiple times for refusing to give up her bus seat to a White person. The first time was in 1949, Browder said, well before Rosa Parks was arrested in 1955.
“My dad is so important to this story,” said Browder who was born in Denver and moved as a child to Verbena, Ala. She was bullied in school — “too tall, too articulate, too smart,” she said — and was not one to take it quietly. “When attacked, I would respond.” With her fists. After she was suspended several times, her father got tough when she was 12.
“He said, ‘You’re not going to stay home and watch Oprah Winfrey all day,’ ” she recalled. And then he did something unexpected: He gave her tubes of paint and some T-shirts and told her to be constructive with them. She started a hand-painted T-shirt business. “He discovered my talent,” she said.
She went on to study visual communications at the Art Institute of Atlanta and eventually moved back to Montgomery, becoming a serial entrepreneur. She opened a gallery, started a restaurant, organized an empowerment initiative for marginalized youths. She started the tour business in 2016, although it’s been on hold while she worked on the monument.
For now, Browder is focused on the steady stream of people coming to view her monument. “Visitors have just been weeping,” she said. “One woman said she’s lived here all her life and didn’t know about this. It’s touching a lot of lives.”
Including Shedrick, the womb artist. “I’m a little Black girl born in Opelika, Alabama, now connected to this story,” she said. “This story is actually out there — out there — where the whole world is going to know about the suffering of these lives.”