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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
Age 89 • South Carolina
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