By Paris Wolfe
When author and medical anthropologist, Faith Mitchell, Ph.D., was an undergraduate studying anthropology at the University of Michigan in the 1970s, she spent three summers in the Sea Islands. Numbering more than 100, the Sea Islands are a chain of tidal and barrier islands on the Southeastern Atlantic. While they’re home to luxury estates today, they were still very rural in the 1970s.
At that time, Sea Island residents were mostly African-American descendants of plantation slaves. Known as the Gullah people, they had been geographically isolated from the mainland for generations. Because of that, combined with the effects of racial discrimination, Mitchell says, “They had a lot of African traditions that were maintained through oral tradition, more so than in any other parts of the south.”
Among these traditions was folk medicine that had originated in Africa and merged with Native American and European practices. Interestingly, it bears some resemblance to Jamaican folk medicine, but that’s another story.
As a student, Mitchell was fascinated by the use of plants and natural materials in healing, so she started collecting information about what locals called “roots” medicine. It’s important, she says, to distinguish between what people term good and bad “roots” medicine. “Good roots” is the use of plants, mud, and other natural materials with healing powers, she explains. Meanwhile, “bad roots” is the use of natural materials – plants, blood, bones, candles, feathers and more – for magical purposes, akin to voodoo.
To capture this cultural treasure, Mitchell wrote Hoodoo Medicine: Gullah Herbal Remedies, which was first published in 1978 and then republished in 1999.
The book starts with a brief history of the area and then details medicinal roots, herbs, and plants used in Gullah culture. Artist Naomi Steinfeld produced more than 50 drawings of various medicinal plants to illustrate the book.
Practices described include using elderberry tea to treat colds, mud to cast bone breaks, and tree leaves to draw out headaches. Healing properties were also attributed to mint, Spanish moss, gum tree leaves, and much more. The healing practices remain relevant today for people interested in new pathways to health.
Unfortunately, says Mitchell, much of this tradition has been threatened over the years by the commercial development of the Sea Islands, the exodus of younger generations in search of work, and reduced isolation from the mainland and mainstream. Fortunately, there is renewed interest among Gullah descendants in preserving their unique history and culture.
Today, Mitchell is the recently-retired CEO of Grantmakers In Health and is a fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington, DC, working with the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy and the Health Policy Center. She is also developing the Urban Institute’s American Transformation project, which will look at the implications—and possibilities—of this country’s racial and ethnic evolution.
Dr. Mitchell has a doctorate in medical anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley. She has written or edited numerous policy-related publications as well as Hoodoo Medicine. For more information and to purchase her book, visit Dr. Mitchell’s website.
Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.
Paris Wolfe is an award winning writer of business, food, and travel articles.