A Kentucky Shantyboat Baby

On June 6, 1898, Josie May Carman came into the world aboard a shantyboat where the Mississippi and Ohio rivers merge near the far western Kentucky town of Wickliffe (Ballard County), just four or five miles downriver from Cairo, Illinois. Her multiethnic parents, William Carman and Mary Cavitt Carman, left their farm shack for a shantyboat shortly before she was born. Soon after Josie’s birth, her father moved the family upstream to a shantyboat colony on the Cairo riverfront. As she later explained, “From the shack he and mother moved to the shanty boat, so that he could make a living fishing. . . He was a Cherokee Indian and my mother was half-Seminole and half-black.”

Ballard County, KY, Cram’s Ideal Reference Atlas, 1905.
Cairo, Ilinois Waterfront, late 19th/early 20th Century. Photo, courtesy of the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, Historic Steamboat Photographs Collection

Due to her multiethnic background, Josie endured a hard childhood in a time of deep racism, racial segregation, and limited opportunities. After her mother and grandmother died within a short time of each other, six-year-old Josie went to live with a great-aunt who raised her and her siblings in Fulton, Kentucky on the Tennessee state line. Like her mother, great-aunt, and many women in shantyboat and other poor communities at the time, she later became a midwife.

After graduating from Fulton’s segregated Milton School in 1916, Carman joined the Great Migration of southern Blacks to northern cities. She went to Chicago for vocational and nursing training, perhaps at Black-operated Provident Hospital, created in 1891. She paid her way by working as a chambermaid during the day and attending classes at night. It was difficult for nurses defined by society as Black to get jobs at the time. In 1923, she returned to Fulton as a private duty nurse and delivered her first baby. Her longest assignment in those years as a private nurse was in the home of a white doctor whose four children were stricken with typhoid fever. “He couldn’t get a white nurse to go,” she recalled, “so he called on me as I already had typhoid fever.”

Her fee to deliver a baby was about $5 in the 1920s and 1930s, but as she later remembered, “Lots of times I didn’t get a nickel, everybody was awful poor then.” In 1941, she became a licensed practical nurse and worked in the segregated health care system in Fulton. Still delivering babies at age 80, she outlived all of her children (5 of her own; 2 foster children, and 14 welfare children), as well as her husband, Carter Black, a longtime dining car cook on the Illinois Central Railroad.

A member of Christ Church Holiness, Josie Black became an ordained minister at age 64. By 1979, she had slapped the rumps of an estimated 900 newborn babies along the Kentucky/Tennessee border in the Fulton/South Fulton area. Most, but not all of them, were Black. “People have come to get me in buggies and wagons and taken me everywhere day or night, good weather or bad. . . I have never lost a mother and have had only three stillborn babies.” The secret, she told a newspaper reporter: “Know what you’re doing; keep everything sterile, and if you don’t know something, call a doctor.”

Died on Nov. 23, 1982. Buried in Fairview Cemetery, Fulton, KY (Sources: The Paducah Sun, February 6, 1969, and April 6, 1979; U.S., Find a Grave Index, 1600s to Current)

Josie M. Black, photo courtesy of The Paducah Sun, April 6, 1979. The featured image of her appeared in The Paducah Sun, Feb. 6, 1969.

7 responses to “A Kentucky Shantyboat Baby”

  1. Thank you for sharing this story about this wonderful lady.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for reading about her and for your nice comment.


    2. What a beautiful story good reason for reparations. HR40 March on Washington DC Labor day 2022.

      Liked by 1 person

    3. Yes, a wonderful woman, indeed. Thank you for reading and commenting.


  2. This is a great read. I work in LTC and will share with my community. I am always looking for facts about our counties people.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s wonderful, Heather. Thank you.


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