Herbal Medicine

Slaves often treated themselves with home remedies passed down by word of mouth. Some of these remedies came from African practice.

Slaves who were highly skilled at herbal medicine were known as root doctors. Those who used magic and charms were called conjurors. Both sometimes relied on superstition as well as dosing.

In 1819 the overseer at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest learned that a slave named Hercules had been getting medicines from a conjuror and giving them to other slaves. The medicines caused much illness and several deaths. The slaves had hidden this information from the overseer because they were afraid of the conjuror’s power.

As late as the 1950s, root doctors and regular black doctors sometimes worked together. As one African American physician recalled, “Dr. Hall, who was a practitioner of folk medicine, . . . was a good friend of ours. Many a man or woman came to see us because Dr. Hall had sent them. Dr. Hall recognized his limitations. Even though he did his incantations in his type of medicine, he was smart enough to know that he couldn’t cure gonorrhea. . . . He would tell them, along with what he did, it wouldn’t work unless the patient went to see a doctor and got a dose of penicillin.”

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