In this country, much of our “folk remedies” and herbal knowledge are just as much from Native Americans as enslaved people (Savitt, 2005). Herbal healers were sought out by both enslaved and free people. Their services were regularly required, and they were preferred over formally trained doctors. Ethnographies of the southern plantations describe the deplorable conditions of the enslaved people. Exposure to extremes of heat and cold, cramp unsanitary conditions, and inadequate clothing and shoes that resulted in parasitic infections are just a few of the ways that enslaved people’s health suffered. Just as allopathic (Western medicine) treatment is expensive today, it was expensive in the past. There are more harrowing reason reasons why enslaved people resisted formally trained doctors (Savitt, 2005).
Enslaved people from Africa were considered more pain resistant than the enslavers of European Origin. Allopathic physicians would not hesitate to use extreme practices and medicine on enslave people. Naturally, most enslaved people looked within their own community for healing. A second reason enslaved people valued herbal remedies is that the herbal healers were valuable not only to the enslaved community but also the community as a whole (Savitt, 2005; Covey, 2007).
Plantations were isolated and often a day’s ride from any settlement where a doctor could be summoned. Knowledgeable enslaved healers were often called to attend the enslavers and other free members of the plantation community. A healer’s ability to heal enslaved people from injury or disease was valued, but especially of value was their ability to heal a sick child, wife, or “master” of the enslaver community (Covey, 2007).
A few of the tangible benefits for enslaved healer were better quarters, clothing, and food rations. But perhaps the best benefit was the reduce risk of having family separated. It was often the custom to gift enslaved people to another property when an enslaver’s child married. This risk of separation was a threat used to instill fear and gain compliance from the enslaved (Covey, 2007).
Other benefits included the ability to do side work or receive payment for healing outside members of the community. Local farmers and other free people would consult enslaved people of renown healing knowledge (Covey, 2007). Because these people were not directly connected with the plantation, they were expected to pay for healer’s services. This was one way the healer could earn enough money to buy their freedom. In some rare cases, enslave healers were granted freedom as gratitude for healing members of the enslaver’s family (Brixius, 2019).
Herbal knowledge was gained three ways: 1) Knowledge brought over from the enslaved people’s origin; 2) Exchange of knowledge with Native Americans; and, 3) Knowledge passed from other enslaved healers. Seeds were brought over from West Africa in the clothes the enslaved wore and also the hay that they were pack in on the cargo ships (Johanson and Agha, 2021). The climate in parts of the Southern US would be conducive to allow some seeds to take root. Many healing herbs like oregano and basil are extremely hardy and have counterparts that exist all over the world. Enslaved herbalist would recognize these familiar plants and known how to use them (Reifschneider and Bardolph, 2020).
Infused oils enhance other herbal remedies.
To Native American’s, medicinal plants are considered sacred. Passing on the methods to safely use otherwise toxic plants is not knowledge that is readily shared by either enslaved people or Native American’s. Native American’s wiliness to extend this knowledge to enslaved peoples may indicate empathy towards their plight. Other factors may have been a marked gain of respect with the sustainable harvest methods that enslaved people and Native American’s saw in one another.
St. John's Wort flowers
Enslaved healers were keen to pass on their knowledge to a few select people. Often very secretive, the knowledge of what to harvest, when to harvest, and how to prepare medicines was passed down through an oral tradition. Enslaved people had little resources and time to make time intensive concoctions, they maximized the synergy of herbal combinations (Covey, 2007).
One example is a pain salve (Deep Relief). To make the salve, I infused St. John’s Wort flower in oil (pictured above). The flowers must be collected at a specific time when they ooze a red secretion and steeped in oil that is warm but not too hot for 4-6 weeks. This oil works synergistically with other herbs to provide relief from nerve pain and muscular pain. It is amazing how well it works. Some clients report it provides relief where nothing else will help. I feel that I honor the herbal traditions that enslaved people followed especially when I use herbs synergistically. And to honor them better, I will be donating 10% of the profits from Deep Relief to Black Women’s Health Imperative.