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Exploring the Rich History of African American Herbalism

Updated: Feb 2, 2023


My goal with this post isn't to sum up those 400 years of survival in a 5 min blog post, I could write an entire novel and I still feel as though that wouldn't even begin to scratch the surface. No, my goal is to shed light on how big a part the enslaved and those who followed played in creating what America knows to be herbalism. I want to try to reconnect those of the diaspora with a skill and knowledge that helped our ancestors to survive in time when all they had was the clothes on their backs and knowledge obtained and passed on through the years.


As a black farmer and herbalist, it's my goal to bring understand for myself and those who look like me of how important herbalist and holistic medicine is to the history of us. A way to pay homage if you will, a means of cultural and historical exploration. A mission to honor and reclaim those lost stories and traditions/ knowledge of healing. Especially, since so much of our history has been distorted or erased completely. (Extra, I know it.)



The Roots of African American Herbalism


African American herbalism is rooted in West Africa, where for centuries, people have used plants and herbs for medical treatments. After arriving in the Americas, with help and guidance from indigenous tribes those enslaved were then introduced to knowledge of local plants and their medicinal uses. African American herbalism thus expanded overtime through the collection of new information gathered and passed down throughout and beyond enslavement.



Despite being forbidden from practicing their traditional beliefs by their oppressors, many enslaved managed to keep their traditions alive by passing along information through coded messages found in Negro spirituals and stories. With their knowledge of herbs to treat ailments such as headaches, stomachaches, fevers, and colds. They created remedies using everyday items such as roots, bark, leaves, and berries were utilized at different stages.


Those enslaved thus had to remember how to identify plants at their different stages, knowing when something was good to use or if it was poisonous and what was not., Many relying on information given to them throughout time base on their region. Many slaves sold to different states carried different information about different plants. This form of folk medicine was passed down through generations until it eventually morphed into what we now know as “herbalism”—the practice of using plant-based remedies to treat illnesses.




Many enslaved were given access to grow their own gardens to supplement the meager weekly/ month rations given to them by their oppressors. They used those gardens to plant medicinal plants and also foraged locally. Forests and wetlands near plantations served as apothecaries to source plant as well as a place of peace and refuge from the long hours of labor. My great great-grandmother once told me that" the old healers/ grannies had the eyes of a hawk, come time to find 'em medicine."


Herbal medicine was essential the African Americans enslaved and emancipated alike. White doctors rarely "took care" of black patients and even when they would, it would be subpar and at an astronomical price point that many just couldn't afford the treatment. This is where "the Grannies" came into play, their role was vital to the black community.


The Granny was usually an older woman in the neighborhood who had much written and oral knowledge about plant remedies. She would also be the neighborhood midwife and sometime the neighborhood spiritual doctor. This would be who your mother would send you to or have you "gone fetch" in emergencies. She was key to many lives saved in that era.


Roots and Herbs in African American Herbalism



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)




Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)



Mullein/mullet (Verbascum thapsus)



Sumac (Rhus)





Notable African American Herbalist and Communities


There are many notable herbalists and communities that have kept and passed down the traditions of our ancestors and are well known within black history.



George Washington Carver (1864 – January 5, 1943) mastered chemistry, botany, mycology, and herbalism. He was born into slavery in 1864. After emancipation, he later became an agriculturist, botanist, teacher, and inventor. He would receive a degree in agriculture in 1894 and master's degree in botany in 1896 from Iowa State University as the only black student. He looked to free African American farmers through soil regeneration, and he invented historic farming methods including crop rotation.

George Washington Carver was taught simple herbal applications from his owner’s wife, Susan, and loved working with plants and experimenting with soils and natural pesticides. He became known as a plant doctor. His work was to heal the land and his people, and his studies led him to learn that cotton depleted soils. He found nitrogen-fixing plants, like peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes could restore soils and dramatically increase yields.


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.1 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. 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. A community geared towards exploring the historical and cultural uses of herbs and plant medicine within the diaspora.



Harriet Tubman (March 1822 – March 10, 1913) used herbalism, botany, and knowledge of the natural world around her to help others. Harriet and her passengers on the Underground Railroad used plants to calm babies and help them sleep for the journey. It is estimated that 300 people escaped slavery under Harriet’s passage. Her knowledge of plants used for food and medicine ensured the safe passage of many enslaved Africans and she aided both white and black soldiers wounded in the Civil War



Maude Evelyn Daniel Callen (1898 -- 1990) spent more than a half-century serving as a nurse and midwife to the poor people of Berkeley County, SC. She was born in Florida, graduated from Florida A & M, and took a nursing course before moving to SC. She taught children how to read and write, held vaccination clinics at local schools for smallpox and diphtheria, and held the county’s first venereal-disease clinic. Because people were unable to travel, she went to them, often walking miles through woods and creeks to get to her patients. It is estimated that she delivered 600 to 800 babies during her lifetime.




Herbalists Across Generations

Today, many African Americans are reclaiming their ancestral roots by exploring herbalism as an alternative form of holistic healthcare. There are a number of prominent herbalists who are working to preserve this tradition for future generations. One example is Alice Walker—author of The Color Purple—who has written extensively about her own experiences with herbal healing throughout her career. Another notable figure is Jessica Lewis, founder/CEO/herbalist at Urban Bush Women’s Health Co-Op (UBWC), which works to bring affordable health services to underserved communities in Brooklyn, NY. These women are just two examples out of thousands who are dedicated to preserving the rich heritage that comes with the practice of African American herbalism in the diaspora.


Conclusion

African American herbalism is a time-honored tradition that has been passed down through generations since before slavery ended on U.S soil. Today there are countless practitioners who are dedicated to preserving this ancient art form for future generations by exploring its potential for holistic health treatments both within and outside communities across the diaspora. In doing so they ensure that our collective history remains alive and well for years to come. As young adults today we can all strive towards honoring our ancestors by learning more about this incredible culture that preceded us.


Though we may never be able to fully understand or appreciate its origins or true value we can still strive towards becoming better stewards by keeping its flame burning brightly in our hearts. This is how we honor those who paved a path forward for us. This is how we honor those who came before us. This is how we honor our ancestors. This is how we keep our heritage alive!

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