Laying on of Hands

Laying on of Hands: "The application of a faith healer's hands to the patient's body; care provided through prayer and faith in God"

There is a scene in the film "Daughters of the Dust" which depicts a black community, at the turn of the 20th century, gathering together to celebrate their African-ness, on the eve of their migration to the north. The film, directed by Julie Dash, gives the viewer an understanding of the importance of spirituality and heritage in the lives of African-Americans. In the film, the spirits of the ancestors move throughout the woods as the various characters negotiate the complex issues in their lives. According to historian Sharla Feet, African Americans healers went to the woods to gather their roots and herbs, from which they made medicine, but also to seek solace and privacy. "Going into the woods" symbolized a place of spirituality, according to Fett.

In Maryland, early colonial laws were enacted that forbade "tumultuous gathering of negroes" in the woods, where slaves often held their own religious services. However, planters were never able to completely eliminate this practice from the culture of the enslaved. The very nature of the slave's existence nurtured the importance of spirituality, self-healing, and the "woods" as a source of physical refuge.

Sickness and diseases such as malaria, typhoid, pneumonia, along with other respiratory infections and tuberculosis, plagued the southern half of the country. Crowded living conditions, poor diet and physical abuse by owners contributed to the health risks slaves faced.

From the woods, a root doctor or slave healer gathered the plant life from which they made herbal teas, balms, and salves.

A "root doctor" or "slave healer" was often an older member of the slave community, one who practiced a more spiritual dimension within their treatment of ailments among the population. This spiritual dimension had ties to the African past and the knowledge of which was passed down from one generation to the next within the slave community.

Black women often functioned as nurses and midwives and worked out of the small buildings used as "sick houses" or "infirmaries" on large plantations. Midwives assisted women (black and white) through the process of childbirth.

The slave conjurer was viewed as an individual who combined natural medicinal treatments for illness with supernatural practices. While some slaves and planters viewed "conjuration" as negative and pure folly, there were many who believed in its power.

When natural medicinal treatments failed, a slave might resort to a conjurer for healing. In her thesis, Sara Cotton notes that a conjurer "had at his disposal not only supernatural means of healing but also knowledge of roots." But if this form of treatment proved unsuccessful, many planters called in physicians to treat their laborers, having given the slave the opportunity for self-care. For the planter, the body of the slave was considered "property" and the physical well being of a slave was an economic issue. A planter needed fairly healthy laborers to harvest crops on large plantations.