Remembering Healers and Herbal Remedies

Freedom Center Voices

Remembering Healers and Herbal Remedies

This week I would like to honor healers, women that brought the tradition of herbal healing to America from Africa using plants, roots, bark and animals to make medicine. Enslavement brought a lot of healers from Africa. If they came across plants they didn't know, they learned about them from either Native Americans or by trial and error. There was always a healer around that could help ease the pain and suffering of both the enslaved and the free.

In one of my previous blog posts, I shared that Susie King Taylor was a healer who used knowledge passed down from her grandmother. In that post I only mention Sassafras as a blood purifier, but it was also used for joint pain. Below is a list of some of the herbs used by enslaved people, partly because many of them distrusted man-made medicines. Everything listed here was either boiled into tea or made into a paste to dress wounds:

  • Pennyroyal – Pain reliever, also used to relieve the pain of childbirth (Don’t know of any medicine that can do that…)
  • Snakeroot – Purified the body (Horrible taste. Completely cleaned out the internal system, so you would need to stay close to the bathroom…)
  • Rat Vein – Treating colic babies (Smelled bad. Since there were no bottles, a rag was soaked and baby watch closely so they wouldn’t choke on it)
  • Wild Cherry Bark – Fever reducer
  • Sage – Soothed a sore throat
  • Horehound – Cold treatment (Found in some cough syrups today)

That was the 1800s, but how about the 1900s? This reminds me of some of the home remedies that were given to me as a young child in Virginia:

  • Cod-liver oil – Given for colds. Mixed w/honey and a side of orange slices to cover the bad taste (it didn’t help)
  • Castor Oil – For general sickness
  • Lye soap – Shaved and mixed in warm water to use as an enema
  • Wet Tobacco – For bee stings
  • Condensed milk & stale bread – Skin infection (I was told this would bring boils instead of illness)
  • Father John – I don’t know what was in it, but it tasted worse than cod liver oil or castor oil
  • Garlic – Cold, whooping cough, foot pain, corns
  • Vinegar – Helped lower blood pressure
  • Fat back (fat from the back of a pig) – used to prevent gangrene from stepping on rusty nails and glass injuries (country living, we walked bare footed a lot…)

There were also herbs my grandmother and aunts used on us as children and we had no idea what they were. We were told “to take it or else,” so that’s what we did. Nobody wanted to find out what “or else” meant. Some common meds like Vicks Vapor Rub made a difference with fever. It was placed under my nose and rubbed on my chest and back. I was also given a little bit of it to eat, then wrapped in a hot towel to make me sweat. I did feel better the next morning.

As we laugh and ponder the different remedies that have been used for healing, I would like to thank and honor those that kept us here.  We have come a long way with medical treatment, and we thank all those today that stand on the front line, treating COVID-19, while we wait on a cure.

Now it’s your turn, let’s keep this rolling  If you can remember any home remedies not listed above, we’d love to hear from you. If none come to mind, maybe give someone older in your life a call and ask them. Let us know where they grew up. I am sure there were a lot of home remedies out there and I just scratched the surface.

Novella Nimmo

Education Coordinator
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

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