Healing and the African Spirit

This researcher found a number of wonderful sources for information on African Americans and Medical Care prior to Emancipation. This summary is written based on the information provided in the following sources. More in-depth information can be found in the scholarship of the following authors:

Bodies of Knowledge: The Influence of Slaves on the Antebellum Medical Community, by Sara Mitchell Cotton. This was a master thesis at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
On the web at: http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/theses/available/etd-65172149731401/

Working Cures: Healing, health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations, by Sharla M. Fett, University of North Carolina Press>

Medicine and Slavery: The Disease and Health Care of Blacks in Antebellum Virginia, by Todd L. Savitt, University of Illinois Press

At any given point in the history of His Lordship's Kindness, the influx of Africans was a constant source of measured growth. Like many of the landed gentry in Prince George's County, prior to emancipation, the labor of Africans became the source of economic prosperity. The cultivation of tobacco, the main crop of colonial Maryland, required manpower to plant, maintain, harvest, and ship. The wealthy Maryland planter looked to Africa for its labor supply.

For the captive African, the Americas became a source of mental and physical pain, of which no man in the present can measure. The physical conditions of their enslavement often produced long and arduous working hours, insufficient sustenance, profound mental anguish, or the humiliation and pain that resulted from colonial and antebellum forms of punishment.

In modern times, we attach word such as starvation, depression, cruelty, and injustice to what was the everyday existence of captured Africans who labored on American plantations.

Over the years, many scholars have studied the impact of slavery on the physical and mental health of enslaved Africans, and how they coped with their involuntary servitude.

From across the Atlantic Ocean, Africans brought with them knowledge of the properties of wild plants, herbs and roots, and African ways of treating physical and mental ailments. Native American and European methods of medical treatments would also integrate into this knowledge base.

Individuals' known as root doctors, conjurers, herbalists, or slave healers were present on many plantations. It was these persons who treated many laborers and were often called upon to treat the sick before a plantation owner would call a physician. Many times, slaves preferred being treated by the healer. Their preferences were born out of distrust for the physician, whose methods of treatments, often seemed too foreign or risky to the slave.

Slave owners looked upon their African laborers as property and that sense of ownership meant "control" over the physical body of the slave. This meant that overseers were required to report, which slaves were ill and with owners often deciding what course of treatment would be provided.

According to scholars, a dual system of medical treatment existed on many plantations. While white medical professionals often viewed slave healers as primitive and inept, slaves often viewed white physicians with suspicion and mistrust. Often, black people hid their ailments in an effort to allow treatment by the slave healer rather than have an owner impose treatment by a medical physician.

Among the slave populations, methods of treatment and knowledge of roots and herbs passed from one generation to the next. Self-treatment among slaves, or the preference for slave healers would also extend beyond the slave community to be absorbed in the wider culture as "folk medicine" and later as a movement towards natural and more organic forms of treating various ailments.

Like many large plantations, Poplar Hill had a place where slaves were housed when they fell ill. Often called a "sick hospital", the "infirmary" at Poplar Hill still stands. By 1860, there were more than 160 slaves on the plantation. It was not unusual for a planter to construct an outbuilding intended for the care and treatment of their laborers. Slave healers or midwives often provided for the care and treatment of slaves within these buildings.

Additionally, for Africans, there was a spiritual component to health and healing. In her thesis, Sara Mitchell Cotton recounts four themes found in the medical practices of southern slaves, as documented by historian Sharla Fett: 1) the belief that medicines themselves possessed spiritual force, 2) the act of preparing and administering the medicines brought the healer closes to the spiritual force, 3) the ritual of healing helped "maintain proper relationships between living persons and the world of ancestors and spirits.", 3) the spiritual power could be used for both healing and harming.



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by Bianca P. Floyd, Museum Director

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Last update: 23 June, 2013