African American Plant Medicines of the South Carolina Sea Islands

By Faith Mitchell, Ph.D.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Mitchell’s original blog post was featured in April, 2020, in anticipation of The Herb Society of America’s Annual Meeting of Members, which was postponed due to COVID-19. Below is an updated version of Dr. Mitchell’s post, who will now be speaking at the April, 2022, Annual Meeting of Members in Charleston, SC. For more information, please visit The Herb Society of America’s web site.

[A root doctor] told us that he had been born with a special knowledge of healing and had studied the science of herbs from the time he was a small boy. Some of the herbs he uses in his mixtures are Golden Seal, Yellow Dust, Golden Thread, Hippo Foot, Pink Root, Lady Slipper, Yellow Root, Blood Root, Rattlesnake Master, Black Snake Root, and John the Conqueror.

Georgia Writer’s Project, Drums and Shadows; Survival Studies Among the Georgia Coastal Negroes, 1940

Gullah slaves painting circa 1790The South Carolina and Georgia coast, which was settled in the 1670s, is one of the oldest parts of the United States. Worked by enslaved West Africans who came to be known as the Geechee or Gullah, for centuries Sea Island plantations growing cotton, rice, indigo, and other crops produced massive wealth for white plantation owners. Today, Hilton Head, Kiawah, and other Sea Islands are known for their resorts, recreation, and high-end vacation housing.

Map of the Sea Islands, South CarolinaThe Sea Islands have a uniquely resilient African heritage that distinguishes them from other African American communities. There are several reasons for this. Prior to Emancipation, Sea Island slave plantations were typically large and had hundreds of enslaved Black people and very few whites. In addition, long after the legal end of the slave trade in 1808, traders continued to bring enslaved Africans to the islands. Finally, separated by salty creeks and marshes from the mainland, the islands were geographically isolated for more than two centuries. In some cases, connecting bridges weren’t built until the 1950s. The result was that the coastal islands from South Carolina to the upper end of Florida were home to tightly knit Black rural communities that had their own unique culture. These Gullah communities lived close to the land, working the fields, catching oysters, fish, and shrimp, and keeping alive religious, linguistic, healing, and other traditions from their African ancestors.  

The Gullah people were mostly unknown to the outside world until the first Union soldiers arrived in South Carolina during the Civil War. In fact, some of the first spirituals that captivated northern listeners were sung by freed Gullah people. Then, in the early 20th century, the Sea Islands and other Black communities caught the attention of academics who were keenly aware that the oldest of the formerly enslaved people were dying, and with them many folk traditions. These early writings are a good source of stories and songs, despite often reflecting a distressingly demeaning attitude toward the Gullah people themselves.

Cover of Hoodoo Medicine bookWhen I made my first trip to the Sea Islands in 1971, I was awed by the breathtaking, tropical beauty of the land and the water and the sense of community among the Gullah people. Although people were poor by material standards, they were rich culturally and spiritually. 

At the time, there were few doctors on the more remote Sea Islands, so on one of my trips, I decided to find out if there were traditional medicines that people used and, if so, what they were. What I learned resulted in my book, Hoodoo Medicine: Gullah Herbal Remedies.

Practices described in Hoodoo Medicine 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. Some of the plants and roots people described to me were introduced from Africa or Europe, while others are plants that were first used by the American Indians. Local people distinguish between what they call good and bad “roots” medicine. “Good roots” is the use of plants, mud, and other natural materials with healing powers. Meanwhile, “bad roots” is the use of natural materials – plants, blood, bones, candles, feathers, and more – for magical purposes, akin to voodoo. Even though “hoodoo” sounds like “voodoo,” my book is about good roots! 

Botanical illustration of a cotton plant and flowerGullah healing practices remain relevant today for people interested in new pathways to health. In fact, sales of Hoodoo Medicine took off during the Covid pandemic. And fortunately, there is strong interest among Gullah descendants themselves in preserving their unique history and culture.

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.

Photo Credits: 1) Gullah slaves, circa 1790 (freemaninstitute.com); 2) Sea Islands, South Carolina (GoogleMaps.com); 3) Hoodoo Medicine cover art (Faith Mitchell); 4) Cotton flower/plant (Gossypium hirsutum) botanical print (Public Domain).

References

Allen, William F. Slave songs of the United States. 1867). Available from: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/pst.000029312436

Davis, Henry C. Negro folk-lore in South Carolina. The Journal of American Folklore. 27, no. 105 (1914): 241–54. Available from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/534619

Parsons, Elsie C. Folk-lore of the Sea Islands, South Carolina. Memoirs of the American Folk-Lore Society. 16 (1923). Available from: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/njp.32101068189925


Picture of author Faith Mitchell, Ph.D.Dr. Mitchell has a doctorate in medical anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley. In addition to Hoodoo Medicine and a supernatural thriller, The Book of Secrets, Part 1, she has written or edited numerous policy-related publications. For more information and to purchase her books, visit Dr. Mitchell’s website.

Dr. Faith Mitchell on Hoodoo Medicine

By Paris Wolfe

Gullah_s_carolina_1790

Gullah slaves, circa 1790

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.”Copy of Sea Islands 512

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.

CoverTo 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.

Cotton Flower

Cotton flower used medicinally on the Sea Islands

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.

 

Faith MitchellDr. 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.