Slave medicine

Herbal lessons from American history

| July/August 1998

  • 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.
  • Slaves routinely took herbal tonics by the teaspoonful, and gave castor oil to their children to cleanse them of impurities. Pictured here: Charity Anderson, 101, a former slave in Alabama.
  • Many traditional healers held the slaves’ knowledge of herbal medicine in high esteem. Pictured here: Emma Crockett, 80, of Alabama.
  • Slaves wore bags filled with garlic and other herbs around their necks to ward off disease. Pictured here: Ben Horry, 89, a retired boatman from South Carolina.
  • Slaves used mustard plasters to help cure pneumonia. Pictured here: Tempe Herndon Durham, 103, of North Carolina.

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.”

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