North American Black Herbalism
Many new or modified herbal traditions arose within Black communities in North America. These traditions were most celebrated, documented, and depended upon in the Southeast, where slavery was most concentrated. Typical elements included a combination of African, European, and Indigenous healing modalities, medicinal herbs, spiritual practices, and folklore. Voodoo and Santeria are examples of this fusion whose practice is generally focused in the Caribbean, Louisiana, and other parts of the Deep South. Santeria is a branch of the traditional religion of the Yoruba people from Nigeria that merged with Catholicism as a means of survival. Thus the customary African gods are addressed under the names of Catholic saints. Voodoo is a religious practice from the Vodun religion of the Fon and Ewe tribes of Dahomey (now known as Benin) that also has some syncretic elements of Catholicism.
These traditions use medicinal plants in different ways from much of contemporary North American/European-centric herbalism. Some features include the use of talismans, mojo bags, and other items representing power and magic—often in the pursuit of healing and protection, or, in the case of bad intentions, hexes on enemies. Some of these practices are encompassed by the terms “hoodoo,” “mojo working,” and “rootwork.”
The exchange and fusion of knowledge that happened in the southeastern United States manifested a particular constitutional system of assessment that is still practiced today, as documented in the book Southern Folk Medicine by Phyllis D. Light. African American and Indigenous traditions also influenced one of the most famous historic herbalists of the South, Tommie Bass. Bass was also a teacher of Phyllis Light’s.1,2 Tommie is known to have studied as a youth with an elderly Black midwife by the name of Mollie Kirby.
Black women in particular were often responsible for healing and helping across the full trajectory of life— from birth to death—throughout the southeastern United States for centuries. The practice of African American midwifery long-outlived slavery until it was outlawed, especially in many parts of the South where there was a rush to “modernize” birthing practices. Maude Callen is one southern midwife whose life has been documented; others wrote their stories in autobiographical form.3–6 Black women continued to take care of white children as a matter of practice well into the mid-1900s in the southern US. A resurgence in Black midwifery is underway currently. (See blackmidwivesalliance.org)
Some of the major native plants of North America incorporated into the Afro-botanical healing tradition include:
- Black walnut (Juglans nigra)
- Cudweed (Gnaphalium)
- Devil’s walking stick (Aralia spinosa)
- Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum)
- Dogwood (Cornus florida)
- Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
- Holly (Ilex )
- Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
- Pine (Pinus)
- Sumac (Rhus)
- Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua)
- Black cherry (Prunus serotina)
- Wax myrtle, or bayberry (Myrica cerifera)
- Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)
Some plants introduced into North America from Eurasia that have found a home in African American healing include mullein/mullet (Verbascum thapsus), peach (Prunus persica), and pomegranate (Punica granatum). The book Resources of the Southern Fields and Forest by Francis Porcher gives a large survey of useful plant knowledge from the South during the Civil War.
Black Herbalists in Literature & History
A couple of North American Black herbalists have entire books dedicated to their perspective, including Maude E. Scott of Florida and John Lee of North Carolina.7,8 Clearly, in both cases their practices were influenced by both mainstream herbal literatures as well as Indigenous knowledge passed down by elders. Emma Dupree is another North Carolina herbalist who has been honored, as seen in this YouTube video.
A number of other healers are also given monographic treatments in the exceptional book Working the Roots by Michelle E. Lee.9 A great quote from that book is: “My mother didn’t carry us to no doctor” by Oscelena Harris, typifying the can-do attitude of many Blacks in rural locales. The book Black Indian Slave Narratives by Patrick Minges offers a deeply complex look into the lives of several people and their connection to slavery and mixed ancestry with fascinating tidbits of botanical lore, including the making of persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) beer.10 The African American Slave Narratives documented by the Works Progress Administration is a trove of knowledge about all manners of life in the South from the 1800s to the early 1900s that can be found in print and online.
The Gullah/Geechee community of the Sea Islands off the coast of the Carolinas and Georgia represents a special group that was isolated from mainstream society into the mid-1900s. At least 76 species of plants have been documented for medicinal use from this area.11,12 Quite a few other plants that are known to be medicinal in West Africa are also found in this eco-type and could thereby be theorized to have a traditional use as well.13 The Gullah/Geechee are now best known for their world-famous baskets that reflect only a fraction of their practices and world views related to herbalism and spirituality derived from African roots. The community hosts the Gullah Geechee Herbal Gathering, which is a one-day conference for Black and Indigenous people and people of Gullah Geechee heritage. This annual conference is geared towards exploring the historical and cultural uses of herbs and plant medicine in the Gullah/Geechee Nation and within the diaspora.
George Washington Carver is one of the most famous Black scientists of all times. He worked with all sorts of plants as well as fungi, but is probably best known for coming up with a multitude of applications for the peanut. Many books have been written about his life.14–16 Less known is his connection to a Black herbalist and midwife named Mariah Watkins. In Asheville, NC, where I mostly reside, one of the first public food forests of the modern age was established around 20 years ago and is named in Carver’s honor.
Harriet Tubman is most well-known as someone who helped liberate enslaved peoples. However, she was also a naturalist who was very knowledgeable about the plants around her. She employed herbalism to help the folks in her charge. Activist and farmer Leah Penniman writes about this and more of the African American herbal tradition in her book, Farming While Black.17
Madam C.J. Walker is one of the first self-made Black millionaires, and the first self-made female millionaire (of any race) in the United States. She was responsible for a line of herb-based health and beauty products. Her life has now been made into a visual series for television in addition to being the subject of a number of books.18–20
The great migration occurred when millions of Black folks left the violence and segregation of the Jim Crow South.21 These migrants often took up residence in big cities or manufacturing areas in the north or traveled out west. California, in particular, served as the incubator for a doubly diasporic Black herbal tradition.
One person of important historical significance is Onesimus who was born in Africa but was enslaved and transported to Boston, MA. There he taught Cotton Mather the surgical technique of smallpox inoculation, which was known in other parts of the world but not then practiced in North America. His story is a tragic case study in the exploitation of Black knowledge that goes back centuries.
Another example of uncredited intellectual property was how Black people taught folks like Jack Daniels how to distill, and the importation from Africa to the Americas of the procedure known as the “cesarean section.”
Use of Potentially Poisonous or Rare Plants and Non-Plants
Across the African pharmacopeia and the diaspora, much mention is made of using potentially toxic plants. Some key examples include bitter melon/cerassee/sorosi (Momordica charantia), castor bean (Ricinus communis), dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), Mexican tea (Dysphania ambrosioides), poke (Phytolacca americana), red sage (Lantana camara), and rosary pea (Abrus precatorius). In the case of cotton (Gossypium hirsutum), enslaved women sometimes took agency to avoid unwanted pregnancies, which was often the result of sexual assault by slaveholders, by using this plant.22
The use of potentially rare or endangered plants is part of the Afrobotany tradition. Some examples include various orchids, pitcher plants (Sarracenia minor), and Virginia snakeroot (Aristolochia serpentaria).
Alcohol production is something with a legacy of practice in the African American community as with many other groups from around the world. Some examples of plants used to make alcohol include cherries (Prunus spp.), elderberries (Sambucus spp.), grapes (Vitis spp.), and persimmons (Diospyros spp.). Alcohol can, of course, be helpful or harmful depending on the context.
Non-Consensual Contributions of African Americans to Advances in Medicine
Since at least the 18th century, Black people have been subject to “dangerous, involuntary, and nontherapeutic” medical experimentation at the hands of white doctors and medical schools.23 They have been used, both forcefully and deceptively, as the testing agents for novel medications, clinical trials, surgical techniques, and contraceptive explorations, including the terrifying “Mississippi appendectomy” performed on young Black women and girls. Their dead have also been dishonored as Black bodies of enslaved peoples and sharecroppers have historically been stolen for anatomical dissection and study.12
European healing traditions employed on slave-holding plantations often relied on toxic elemental substances like antimony, arsenic, lead, and tin.24 Unethical experimentation on Black subjects with these poisons was part and parcel of slavery-era medical trials. Physicians like John Quier and James Thomson used smallpox inoculation and inoculation by the disease known as yaws (an infectious bacterial infection of the skin) in unethical ways as well.24
Unfortunately, unethical practices of the conventional medical community in North America have persisted into modern times. Infamous cases known worldwide include the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment conducted on Black men starting in the 1930s and the case of Miss Henrietta Lacks and the unauthorized use of her cervical cells for medical research.25 During the Tuskegee experiment, Black men were left to suffer from syphilis (and deceived by the experimentors, who didn’t tell them their diagnosis) even after effective treatment had been developed. (The study was conducted from 1932 to 1972.)
The pursuit of the misguided “science” of eugenics in the early 1900s is another example of the horrific history of African American “healthcare.” Barbaric practices aimed at “improving” the genetic quality of the population by controlling African American reproduction, along with other folks considered “inferior,” was practiced for decades. Forced hysterectomies and unethical radiation experiments—especially in an incarceration context—are a despicable legacy of the prison industrial complex in particular. Many accounts of these horrendous historical experiments and operations were discounted or kept secret to protect the reputations of influential white physicians and institutions. As a result, there has been little to no accountability, repercussions, or reparations for the medical traumas inflicted on Black people.
Understandably, there is also a lasting legacy of generational trauma within Black communities around healthcare. Black people are sometimes stereotyped for being resistant to modern medicine without acknowledging their traumatic historical experiences. This is all the more important in the face of the current COVID-19 pandemic and whatever future challenges lay ahead.
What’s more, Black folks continue to suffer at the hands of healthcare: Black infant mortality rates and death rates from cancer are disproportionately high.26,27 Black Americans also have less health care coverage than white Americans and less access to high-quality health care providers, which results in less testing, life-saving diagnoses, and appropriate and timely treatment.
Black Lives Matter
In these days of demonstrations, it bears mentioning the intersectionality between Black and brown lives and the potential for injury while protesting. Sevensong is one of my great influences regarding emergency response care from an herbal perspective. The Orlando Grief Care Project is another good example of folks working in this space. This article in the LA Times is very illuminating: “Why are so many turning to Black herbalists? Their remedies are tailor-made for 2020.”
Some folks mentioned include: Abi Huff Ancestral Apothecary, Jamesa Hawthorne Jaw Ham Herbals, Karen Rose Sacred Vibes Apothecary, LA Herbalists Collective, Regina Pritchett In Her it Blooms, Sade Musa Roots of Resistance, and Adaku Utah of Harriet’s Apothecary.
Clearly the path of African American herbalism has been a long and winding route. It started with the combination of a diverse array of cultures from the African continent and meanders through the tragedy of slavery. Once situated on new land, African Americans needed to adapt their knowledge to the plants at hand, sometimes with the help of local Indigenous groups. Many of these rich traditions have fallen away in the move toward urbanization over the last century. That said, herbalists persist throughout the Americas, and a new wave of interest is starting to take hold. In the third part of this blog series I will offer many more resources for further exploration about this fascinating subject. My greatest aim with this work is to both highlight the contributions of African Americans from the past, and to inspire and inform the folks that can benefit from this knowledge in the present, and in the future.
- Crellin JK, Philpott J. 1997. Trying to Give Ease: Tommie Bass and the Story of Herbal Medicine. Duke University Press; 1997.
- Patton D. Mountain Medicine: The Herbal Remedies of Tommie Bass. 1st ed. Natural Reader Press, LLC; 2004.
- Smith MC. Listen to Me Good: The Story of an Alabama Midwife. Ohio State University Press; 1996.
- Logan OL, Clark K. Motherwit: An Alabama Midwife’s Story. Untreed Reads Publishing, LLC; 2014.
- Smith CC, Roberson MHB. My Bag Was Always Packed: The Life and Times of a Virginia Midwife. AuthorHouse; 2003.
- Bovard W, Milton G. Why Not Me?: The Story of Gladys Milton, Midwife. Book Publishing Company; 1993.
- Scott ME. Leaves of Green: A Handbook of Herbal Remedies. Leaves of Green Inc.; 1996.
- Payne-Jackson A, Lee J. Folk Wisdom and Mother Wit: John Lee—An African American Herbal Healer. Greenwood Press; 1993.
- Lee ME, Allen-Taylor JD. Working the Roots: Over 400 Years of Traditional African American Healing. Wadastick; 2014.
- Minges P, ed. Black Indian Slave Narratives. John F. Blair Publishers; 2004.
- Morton JF. Folk Remedies of the Low Country. 1st ed. Bangor-Brewer YWCA; 1974.
- Mitchell F. Hoodoo Medicine: Gullah Herbal Remedies. Rev. Summerhouse Press; 2011.
- Ayensu ES. Medicinal Plants of West Africa. Reference Publications; 1978.
- Kremer GR, ed. George Washington Carver: In His Own Words. University of Missouri; 1991.
- Vella C. George Washington Carver: A Life. Louisiana State University Press; 2015.
- Clark G. The Man Who Talks with the Flowers: The Intimate Life Story of Dr. George Washington Carver. Martino Fine Books; 2011.
- Penniman L, Washington K. Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land. Chelsea Green Publishing; 2018.
- Bundles A. Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker. Scribner; 2020.
- Oluonye MN. Madam C.J. Walker: Inventor, Entrepreneur, Millionaire. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 2014.
- Ball EL. Madam C.J. Walker: The Making of an American Icon. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers; 2019.
- Wilkerson I. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. Reprint. Vintage; 2011.
- Culpepper K. Cotton Root Bark as Herbal Resistance. J Am Herbalists Guild. 2017;15(2):45-52.
- Washington HA. Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. Anchor; 2008.
- Schiebinger L. Secret Cures of Slaves: People, Plants, and Medicine in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World. 1st edition. Stanford University Press; 2017.
- Skloot R. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Broadway Books; 2011.
- Hearst M., et al. “The Effect of Racial Residential Segregation on Black Infant Mortality.” American Journal of Epidemiology 168, no. 11 (December 2008): 1247–54.
- American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts and Figures for African Americans, 2018.