Slave medicine

Herbal lessons from American history


Richard Toler, age 100, remembered that slaveowners cared for their slaves in the same way they cared for their livestock. So, when slaves fell ill, they often treated themselves using remedies made from boneset, sage, and other herbs.

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Richard Toler

Age 100 • Alabama

WHAT DOES MUSTARD have to do with pneumonia? Many people may not know. But the two of us can still remember the pungent smell of the mustard plasters our grandmother prepared and put on our father’s chest to cure him of pneumonia. We can also recall the foul smell of asafetida—a gum resin of a plant that is a member of the parsley family—that Mom made us wear around our necks to repel all illnesses and plagues, both known and unknown.

Our memories date to the mid-1950s in eastern Tennessee. Asafetida was one of many herbal remedies we were “treated” to during our childhood; weekly doses of nasty-tasting castor oil was another. Although we became patients of Western allopathic medicine as we grew older and one of us became a medical doctor, we didn’t abandon the home remedies passed on to us by previous generations of the family. We cherished the old remedies, learning more about them through individual inquiry and by taking courses. And, as our knowledge and use of herbal remedies increased, we became more and more curious about our slave ancestors’ use of natural cures.

Our research led us to the oral histories of former American slaves, in which they talk about the herbs they used to treat illnesses. Many are the same herbs our parents and grandparents introduced to us, remedies handed down to them from their ancestors who were, at one time, slaves.

Of great value to our search was Paul Escott’s Slavery Remembered, an analysis of the narratives collected by members of the Federal Writers Project, a program set up by the Works Progress Administration during the late 1930s to provide jobs to out-of-work writers. Among the former slaves’ memories are 316 accounts that “revealed prescriptions for a variety of tonics, teas, and root medicines,” Escott writes. Many of the cures were “used in an era of primitive medicine . . . [and] probably represented African lore transmitted and adapted to the southern United States.”

We’ve included direct quotations from some of the narratives in this article. Bruce Fort, a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia who has established an online site for these narratives (www.wpahome.html), writes: “While the transcription of dialect can be offensive to modern readers, it is important to remember that these narratives were conducted sixty years ago in the Jim Crow South; just as these former slaves had survived into the twentieth century, so had the ideology of white supremacy that underpinned the slave society of the American South.”

Health care: What it meant to slaves

Slaveholders often provided their slaves with doctors and medicine when needed, but generally slaves were responsible for their health care on a day-to-day basis. According to eighty-year-old Julia King, whose thoughts are recorded in Slaves Remembered, “When the slaves got sick, the other slaves generally looked after them. They had white doctors, who took care of the families, and they looked after the slaves, too, but the slaves looked after each other when they got sick.” And former slave Richard Macks, ninety-three, told his interviewers: “When the slaves took sick or some woman gave birth to a child, herbs, salves, [and] home liniments were used or a midwife or old mama was the attendant, unless [there was] severe sickness [when] Miss McPherson would send for the white doctor, [but] that was very seldom.”

Many of the herbs used to make slave remedies are the same ones sold in health-food stores today. But slaves used herbs out of necessity and to soothe ailments associated with the hardship of their lives. Constant exposure to the elements contributed to frequent respiratory and intestinal illnesses, including sore throats, colds, fevers, influenza, pneumonia, scarlet fever, dysentery, and parasites, a result of living with hogs or eating poorly cooked pork.

Charity Anderson
Age 101 • Alabama

From teas to amulets

Often, remedies were prepared as teas. “In dem days, was lots o’ fevers with de folks,” eighty-four-year-old Sam Rawls recalled, “dey cured ’em and other sicknesses wid teas from roots herbs and barks.” Nellis Loyd, ninety-one, remembered herbal teas as being a large part of health care, too. “When anybody got sick, de old folks made hot teas from herbs dat dey got out of de woods,” she explained. “One was a bitter herb called ‘rhu’ (rue). . . . Marse always give it to de . . . children, and to de grown ups, too.” (Rue, which shouldn’t be taken during pregnancy because it can cause bleeding, was used by the slaves as an antidote to poisons and plagues.)

The slaves also made plasters—dressings applied to the skin to help heal or soothe—using many of the same herbs they used to make teas. Most often, though, they used mustard because of the herb’s reputation for curing respiratory illnesses. A typical recipe for a mustard plaster called for one part mustard seed (powdered with the seed coats removed) to four parts whole-wheat flour and a little liquid to make a paste, which they put in a cloth. They then put the plaster on the sick person’s chest to draw blood to the surface and to decrease congestion. (Mustard plasters shouldn’t be left directly on the skin for long periods of time—no more than fifteen to thirty minutes for plasters made of pure mustard powder, longer for plasters of mustard cut with flour—because they can cause irritation and leave severe burns.)

Some slaveholders purchased medicine for their slaves, including castor oil, quinine, and turpentine. “Oh, they was ’ticular ’bout sickness . . . and dat cast’ oil bottle, I tell you,” recalled Ella Kelly, eighty-one. “Give . . .[a] dose of castor oil, and dey git well quick, mighty quick,” said Ephraim Lawrence, eighty-one. “And if we claimed bein’ sick, they’d give us a dost of castah oil and tu’pentine. That was the principal medicine cullud folks had to take,” remembered Richard Toler, 100.

Slaves routinely took these herbal tonics by the teaspoonful. Castor oil, a laxative, was commonly used by slaves, and they kept it on hand at all times, even giving it regularly to their children to purge them of impurities. They used quinine to treat nighttime muscle cramps and malaria, and they used gum turpentine from fir and pine trees in the form of “spirits” to treat toothaches, chronic bronchitis, and other ills.

Slaves also wore their herbal remedies, most often asafetida and garlic, to ward off disease. “I wore a asafetida bag ’round my neck, when a child, to keep off croup, measles, diphtheria, and whoopin’ cough,” recalled Ben Leithner, eighty-five. “Dey hung asafetida bags around de necks of de kids to keep down sickness,” Nellis Loyd remembered. “Sometimes they would hang garlic around small boys’ and girls’ necks to keep away any kind of sickness,” said Henry Ryan, eighty-three.

Additionally, asafetida, also called devil’s dung because of its foul odor, was used as a laxative, expectorant, and digestive aid. Garlic, another odorous herb, had an undisputed reputation as a protector against a myriad of illnesses, and combining it with the powerful asafetida was a guarantee against illness.

Trusted remedies

In The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography (Westport, Conn.: Green­wood Press, 1972–1979, 41 volumes), editor George P. Rawick writes: “Although some of the recipes seemed unpromising or bizarre, the former slaves generally placed great faith in their effectiveness.”

Slaveholders often were suspicious of their slaves’ medical remedies, but other people held these remedies in great esteem. Traditional medical practitioners recognized many of the slaves’ remedies as being beneficial. In Roll Jordan, Roll, The World the Slaves Made, Eugene D. Genovese reports that Gunn’s Domestic Medicine, the medical bible of the eighteenth century, “extolled the use of herbs, and although whites, blacks, and Indians all practiced herbal medicine, the reputation of the slave medicine in the plantation districts exceeded that of the others.”

Slaves used herbs to soothe ailments ­associated with the hardship of their lives.

Emma Crockett
Age 80 • Alabama

Maisah B. Robinson teaches English as a second language and edits Network Journal. Her work has appeared in Black College Today, Today’s Atlanta Woman, and other publications. She is author of Composition Teachers’ Criteria for Good Writing. Her brother, Frank H. Robinson, M.D., practices in California.

Photographs courtesy of Bruce Fort, a doctoral candidate in U.S. history at the University of Virginia. Fort has created a Web site (www.wpahome.html) for the slave narratives because, he writes, they are “the single richest resource we have for understanding slavery from the perspective of slaves.”

Tempe Herndon Durham
Age 103 • North

Ben Horry
Age 89 • South Carolina