KATIE HALL UNDERWOOD
MIDWIFE OF SAPELO ISLAND.
1997 Inductee, Georgia Women of Achievement
City, Town, Region
Sapelo Island, GA
Katie Hall Underwood was the daughter of freed slaves and a midwife, whose skilled hands and soothing demeanor brought generations of proud Gullah-Geechee people into the world. yet, her legacy is known by few people outside her isolated Georgia sea island home.
Sapelo Island is the site of Hog Hammock, the last intact, island-based Gullah-Geechee community on the Georgia coast. The Gullah-Geechee people are descendants of slaves who worked the sea island plantations from North Carolina to northern Florida. Their culture is unique because the people were able to retain many of the traditions enslaved Africans brought with them to America, including remnants of their languages, folkways, and foods.
Katie Hall Underwood was born on Sapelo in 1884. The Hall family were some of the original founders of the Raccoon Bluff Community, which was established immediately following emancipation. This community of freedman was almost 1000 acres in size and was primarily settled by formerly enslaved peoples of Sapelo. Katie Underwood began her midwife career in the 1920s and delivered her last baby in 1968. Underwood died in 1977. She was the last of a long line of midwives who served the island going all the way back through the plantations of the early 1800’s.
Sapelo Island’s resident Gullah-Geechee descendants today all live in the 434-acre Hog Hammock Community. However, during most of Underwood’s career as a midwife, there were hundreds of residents scattered about the island’s 10,000-plus acres, in several communities. There was Raccoon Bluff and Belle Marsh to the north, for example and Shell Hammock to the south, near the old dairy farm, the present-day site of the University of Georgia Marine Institute.
Underwood always carried a black bag filled with everything she needed, medicines and natural remedies, and her little book, in which she recorded the names of each baby she delivered. When she arrived at the home of a woman in labor, she opened her bag and gave orders about what family members needed to do to help and what the mother-to-be should eat. She would have dinner with the family after the child was born, and took the time to teach new mothers how to nurse and care for their infants. In the weeks and months following deliver, Mrs. Underwood would walk the island, visiting new mothers and giving them advice about caring for themselves and their new babies. She was revered for her knowledge and respected for her unwavering commitment. Her nephew, the late Mr. Charles Hall, said that he never saw her angry, abrasive or loud.
Her granddaughter, Mrs. Josephine Walker, still resides on Sapelo today and recounts many trips made with her grandmother. She said her grandmother was lean and strong and that she, Josephine, would have to work to keep pace as they moved about the island’s many dirt roads. It was not uncommon to leave the house before daylight, and return that night under the light of the moon. Family members still talk about the time she delivered a bobby on the north end of the island in the mrongin, and then walked seven miles to the south end to deliver another one that same evening. Underwood was well respected in her community. She had a soothing demeanor, yet she took control and could think fast on her feet when called into action at any hour. At the same time, family members say, she had a comforting way about her. She is said to have never lost a child in delivery.
Mrs. Underwood’s legacy is all around us. Her legacy is the people of Sapelo who have had and continue to have a significant impact on not only Georgia but our nation. Engineers, educators, ministers, decorated military veterans, business owners, biologists, medical professionals, boat captains; the list goes on and on. Mrs. Kati Underwood’s children have settled in Hawaii, Alaska, New York and Ohio to name a few. They have moved to Germany and they have remained high on Sapelo Island at him in the Hog Hammock Community. It is with great pride that island residents and descendants claim their birthplace as Sapelo Island and claim Mrs. Underwood as their midwife.
In 2006 the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Resources Division, honored Mrs Katie Underwood by dedicating the new Sapelo Island ferry in her honor. The vessel was commissioned by the Department and was built by GeoShipyard in New iberia, LA. The m/v Katie Underood is an aluminum catamaran, capable of 20t cruising speed while carrying 149 passengers. This was the first DNR vessel to bear the name of an island descendant and reflected a universal admiration for Mrs. Underwood. DNR personnel and island residents had requested an opportunity to name the new ferry in a way that was significant to those living on the island. After interviewing many families, it became apparent that naming the ferry Katie Underwood certainly would bring honor to both the vessel and the woman who was Sapelo’s last midwife. Her memory unites the people of Sapelo.