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
The 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.
The 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.
When 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!
Gullah 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).
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
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.