Our Ancestors and Herbs
Knowledge of the curative powers of plants was a way for Africans and African Americans to survive and care for themselves and their loved ones. Plant knowledge and ritual practices around health and healing were passed down through generations.
Horehound · Marrubium Vulgare Respiratory diseases like pulmonary tuberculosis, whooping cough, and bronchitis affected the health of enslaved Africans and African Americans. In Federal Writers’ Project interviews in the 1930s, formerly enslaved people remembered using horehound to soothe sore throats and coughs. Sally Murphy of Alabama recalled, “When any of us got sick, we was give horehound tea and rock candy.” Horehound is native to North Africa, Europe, and Central Asia, and is part of the mint family. Horehound contains chemical compounds that act as expectorants to loosen and clear mucus from the airway.
Ferula species (possibly Ferula foetida), which formerly enslaved people referred to as “asafetida,” were also used to treat respiratory illness. These plants are members of the carrot family. Today, the term asafetida usually refers to dried latex prepared from the plant’s roots. Ferula species have a strong odor and are also known as “stinking gum” or “Devil’s dung.” Africans and African Americans used asafetida as a preventative against respiratory diseases. It was thought that breathing in the plant's odors would kill disease-causing material. Lizzie Norfleet described her experiences under slavery in an interview with the Federal Writers’ Project: “Every child wore an asafetida bag round the neck to keep from ketching diseases.”
Elderberry or Elder · Sambucus sp. (Sambucus canadensis, Sambucus nigra)
In Federal Writers’ Project interviews, formerly enslaved African Americans recalled using elderberry, also called elder, as a powerful preventative and remedy. Harriet Collins of Texas remembered that elder was placed around infant’s necks to prevent discomfort when teething. Rachel Goings of Missouri described a remedy for sores: “I’d a took elder leaves en boiled em to make a tea—den I’d poured dat in de sore and it ud got well.”
Coneflower or Sampson root · Echinacea sp. Coneflower is native to North America. Native Americans used the plant to treat gastrointestinal issues, fevers, sore throats, toothaches, and burns. In interviews with the Federal Writers’ Project, formerly enslaved African Americans called this plant Sampson root. Phil Town of Georgia remembered using a Sampson root tea to cure cramps. Pierce Harper of Texas and Fannie Moore of North Carolina both used the plant to treat stomach pain.
Okra · Abelmoschus esculentus
African plant species were brought to the Americas as a result of the transatlantic slave trade. Some of the captured African people who survived this unimaginable journey wore strings of plant seeds. Okra was also used for medicinal purposes. Katie Arbery, a formerly enslaved African American who was interviewed through the Federal Writers’ Project, described the healing power of okra. Arbery remembered a time when she was so sick that, “They give me up to die once.” After trying different medicines with no success, her doctor “fed me for three weeks steady on okra soup...Then I commenced gettin' better and here I am.”
Cotton root · Gossypium herbaceum
Many enslaved African and African American women were sources of medicinal knowledge, and many served as midwives and healers. Using plant-based remedies and knowledge gained from experience, enslaved midwives delivered babies and did what they could to alleviate complications with pregnancy and childbirth. Enslaved women used different plants as contraceptives, abortifacients, and to regulate menstruation, induce labor, and ease labor pains. Enslaved women’s reproductive health was threatened by inhumane conditions, malnutrition, rape, and violence. The plantation system pressured enslaved women to have as many children as possible. In interviews with the Federal Writers’ Project, formerly enslaved African Americans described that in secret, enslaved women used the root of the cotton plant to prevent pregnancy. When 19th-century white physicians and enslavers became aware of this practice, it was seen as a threat. Although enslaved women were denied the right to have control over their reproductive lives, they resisted by using plant-based medicines and other methods to assert agency over whether and when they had children.
Sage · Salvia officinalis
The medicinal practices of enslaved Africans and African Americans have been systematically left out of the historical record. In the 18th and 19th centuries, white legislatures passed laws limiting enslaved people’s access to plants and preventing them from practicing medicine.
The institution of slavery separated families from one another and purposefully disrupted the passing down of generational knowledge.
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