Roots of Herbal Wisdom
African-American Community Healers in the 19th and 20th Century
The roots of African American herbalism and traditional healing modalities extend from a rich, diverse collection of wisdom traditions. With origins in ancient Egypt, the depth of African herbalism has been deepened and influenced by Arabic and Asian traditions from centuries of trade and cultural exchange on African land (Hamby, 2004). As enslaved Africans were taken across the Atlantic, they took their wisdom of herbalism with them, at times hiding native seeds in their braids (Vandyke, 2021). As they arrived on foreign lands, the long-held wisdom of how to identify botanicals, with the characteristics to heal and treat ailments, served enslaved Africans well as they navigated the cruel and unjust conditions of plantation life. Plants served a greater purpose to enslaved Africans than a means to heal, they brought a sense of sovereignty, identity, and joy to life. In many cases, plant wisdom offered a pathway of resilience and resistance (Morgan, 2020).
The vast reservoir of knowledge of plant medicine, midwifery, and traditional healing that African communities utilized was at times exploited by and eventually appropriated by European enslavers. The knowledge rooted in African herbal tradition has merged into our contemporary understanding of herbalism, its origins erased by the inequities and inaccuracies of historical storytelling. The accounts available in the record, and the pieces that are recounted here, fail to do justice to the breadth and depth of African-American healers and their contributions to herbalism. This journal serves as the opening of a conversation on how, as beneficiaries of the wisdom of African-American healers, we must decolonize the herbal medicine space and acknowledge both the contributions and erasure of African-American traditional medicinal knowledge.
As declared by Erin Brooke Hamby, “African-American women as cultural creators and bearers have sustained a rich tradition of folk medicine for survival through innovation and creativity.” Read on to receive a glimpse of their stories and bear witness to their legacy.
Susie King Taylor, Nurse, Educator, Herbalist, Author
Born on August 6, 1848, Susie King Taylor was a nurse, herbalist, educator, and memoirist. Born into slavery, she spent her early childhood on a plantation on Georgia’s Isle of Wight, situated along the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia.
At the age of seven, Susie was sent to live with her free grandmother, Dolly Reed, in Savannah, Georgia. It was there that she received her education from two schools held in secret by African-American women, as this was a time in which the formal education of both freed and enslaved African-Americans was forbidden. In her memoir, Susie recalled, “We went every day about nine o’clock with our books wrapped in paper to prevent the police or white persons from seeing them.” Susie’s education came to an end after her grandmother was arrested for singing freedom hymns. She was then sent back to live with the rest of her family on the islands (Tunnel Hill, 2021).
In April 1862, at the dawn of the civil war, the Union army overtook Georgia’s Isle of Wight, subsequently freeing all of the slaves that lived there. Susie fled with her uncle to Union-occupied St. Simons Island off the Georgia coast, where she lived and worked with hundreds of other formerly enslaved refugees. It was there that she became the first Black teacher to openly educate other Black Americans in Georgia (ABT, 2022).
The following year, Susie joined the Union Army working as a nurse, where she traveled with the regiment healing the sick and wounded. Susie’s grandmother was a notable midwife, and she passed down her deep wisdom of traditional and folk herbal remedies to Susie. Susie carried this ancestral knowledge with her onto the battlefield, where she used her wisdom of roots and herbs to save the lives of many soldiers (Tunnel Hill, 2021). Susie’s legacy lives on in her memoir, “Reminiscences of My Life in Camp” which gave her the title of the first ever Black American woman to self-publish a memoir. Susie King Taylor concluded her book with the following plea: “my people are striving to attain the full standard of all other races born free in the sight of God, and in a number of instances have succeeded. Justice we ask, –to be citizens of these United States, where so many of our people have shed their blood with their white comrades, that the stars and stripes should never be polluted.”
Emma Dupree, Community Herbalist
"All that we see, everything that is growin' in the earth, is healin' to the nation of any kind of disease." –– Emma Dupree (1897 - 1995).
Emma Dupree was an herbalist and traditional healer that provided healthcare to Black communities in North Carolina, where access to healthcare for Black Americans was extremely limited. Emma was born in Falkland, North Carolina, where from a young age she could be found by the riverbeds or woodlands becoming acquainted with the bounty of plants that grew wild there, "The woods gal, that's what they called me. They'd say, here come's that little medicine thing"(Baldwin 1984). As Dupree grew older and her knowledge of herbalism deepened, she quickly became the primary and most beloved source of healthcare in her community.
Emma formulated and prepared salves, tonics, elixirs, and teas using plants like mullein, catnip, rabbit tobacco, various mint varieties, jimson weed, and tansy. Like many contemporary herbalists, Dupree took a holistic approach to her treatments, employing her herbal tonics as a way to treat and heal the whole person, rather than just the symptoms. From neighbors, to friends, to folks across town, Dupree used her wisdom of plants to treat people across her community of a variety of ailments. She was well known for her herbal mastery, and it wasn’t uncommon for her to run a line out the door of folks waiting for their chance to receive custom herbal recommendations. Dupree built strong connections in her community, and made sure that anyone who desired her remedies wasn’t denied access. Rather than charging a fixed price for her herbal tonics, she often accepted supplies for future herbal remedies like lemons, vinegar and molasses in exchange (Bazemore, 2021).
After years of serving her community, Dupree was recognized for her contributions to traditional culture and folklife of North Carolina by receiving the Brown-Hudson Award from the North Carolina Folklore Society. Her recognition continued when she received the North Carolina Heritage award for her lifetime of contributions to traditional arts (Bazemore, 2021).
Mary Stepp Burnette Hayden, Herbalist, Midwife
Mary Stepp Burnette Hayden had the reputation of being able to ease nearly any ailment with wild herbs and roots. Born into slavery in 1858 on a plantation in Black Mountain, North Carolina, Mary Hayden grew to become a deeply cherished herbalist and midwife in her community (Smith, 2018).
Mary learned the tools and techniques required for midwifery from her mother, Hanah Stepp, who had been delivering babies since she was thirteen. In the mid-1800’s it was not uncommon for slave-owners to exploit the knoweldge of the women they enslaved in order to deliver their children. After slavery was abolished in 1865, African-American women continued to practice as herbalists and midwives, and Mary Hayden was no exception (Smith, 2018).
Mary was one of only two midwives in all of Black mountain, and she graciously offered her services to every member of her community, whether black or white, able to pay or not. The houses were sometimes miles apart in Black Mountain, with bears known to roam the neighborhoods, but even so, Hayden pressed on, rain, sleet, or snow (Bowman, 2017). Mary O. Burnette, a granddaughter of Mary Hayden, recalled that for her grandmother, “It didn’t matter whether the family was black, white, willing to pay or even if they had not paid for the previous delivery, Granny [Mary Hayden] would gather her supplies and ‘light out’….She knew they didn’t have money"(Smith, 2018).
In the 1920s, state governments across the country enacted a variety of regulations that disproportionately affected African-American women practicing midwifery. These new laws required midwives to obtain approval by a registered doctor in order to continue practicing their trade. Midwives would have their homes assessed for cleanliness, and their ‘moral character’ would be assessed. These restrictions didn’t deter Mary Hayden, however, and she became one of the first African-American women to be a registered midwife with the Buncombe County Health Department.
This affected not only African-American midwives and their ability to practice, it restricted an already limited healthcare supply to African-American and low-income communities. In Black Mountain, where Mary Hayden practiced, the only hospital that African-Amercians were permitted to use wasn’t built until 1927, and even then it was 15 miles away. Lack of transportation, financial resources, and access to health insurance meant that local herbalists and midwives were still the only viable healthcare option for many African-American people in Black Mountain. People in the community relied on Mary Hayden for not only delivering children, but for her extensive knowledge of herbal remedies that could heal and treat a variety of ailments. For many, she was their only available resource for their healthcare needs.
All of the botanicals that Mary Hayden used were foraged from the North Carolina landscape. Jerusalem Oak, also known as wormseed, grew wild in the fields. Mary used that to treat parasitic infections that often plagued the local children. Ground-Ivy, “a little vine with a fan-shaped, scalloped leaf and a little purple flower,” as Mary O. Burnette described it, was used by Mary Hayden to prepare a tea that eased restless sleep, bronchitis, arthritis, stomach problems, kidney stones, and more (Smith, 2018).
For as many herbalists recounted here in this journal, there are countless more whose names, stories, and wisdom remain lost to history. In our necessary efforts to decolonize herbal medicine and facilitate reclamation of African-American herbal wisdom, we must listen to the stories and voices left by those that give us a glimpse into the legacy left by Black healers. A few further reading suggestions include African American Herbalism : A Practical Guide to Healing Plants and Folk Traditions, by Lucretia Vandyke; Working the Roots: Over 400 Years of Traditional African American Healing, by Michelle E. Lee; and African American Folk Healing, by Stephanie Y. Mitchem.
Supporting Contemporary Black Herbalists
The following is a brief, incomplete list of working Black herbalists that you can support.
Authored by Taylor Altenbern, BA in Cultural Anthropology.
American Battlefield Trust, "Women in War: Susie King Taylor," Accessed: Feb 2022.
Baldwin, Karen, "Emma Dupree, Herbalist." Folk Arts and Folklife in and around Pitt County: A Handbook and Resource Guide. Greenville, NC: East Carolina University Folklore Archive, Department of English, 1990: 67-70.
Bazemore, Safiyyah, "Black Herbalist Spotlight: Emma Dupree." Herbal Academy, 2021.
Hamby, Erin Brooke, "The Roots of Healing: Archaeological and Historical Investigations of AfricanAmerican Herbal Medicine. " PhD diss., University of Tennessee, 2004.
Morgan, Alyson, "Roots of African American Herbalism: Herbal Use by Enslaved Africans." Herbal Academy, 2020.
Tunnel Hill Hertiage Center & Museum, "Susie Taylor King: Georgia’s First African American Nurse." 2021.
Vandyke, Lucretia, "Living in the Legacy of African American Healers." Mountain Rose Herbs, 2021.
What a beautiful compilation of history and information. So important to not lose this wisdom. Thanks for sharing!