Sick slaves had a few options when faced with illness, but they were mostly unappealing: One could suffer through, hoping to get better; one could request time off to rest, which—even if granted—might place one in the medical hands of the overseer or master, or perhaps even a physician if it were deemed warranted (and if deemed unwarranted could potentially lead to punishment for malingering); or one could consult a fellow slave who was trained as a healer, or root doctor—this sometimes would meet with severe disapproval from the master if discovered, and might sometimes involve payment.
The first step for many slaves, then, was to treat the malady themselves. There were basically two types of folk remedies. Herbal remedies were common, as slaves were often very familiar—either through direct experience or via an informant—with the various plants and other healing items to be found in their vicinity. The other type of remedy involved an action of some sort; this was a carryover from traditional African healing traditions, in which the victim was often considered to have upset the cosmic balance in some fashion and must perform some action to appease the spirit realm or counteract a sorcerer (Voeks 1993, p. 69).
Several herbal remedies, compiled in the 1930s by Works Progress Administration (WPA) writer Louise Oliphant, are listed below:
Corn shuck tea is good for measles; fodder tea for asthma.
Goldenrod tea is good for chills and fever.
Tea made from rue is good for stomach worms.
Richet weed tea is good for a laxative.
Tea made from parched eggshells or green coffee is good for leucorrhea.
Black snuff, alum, a piece of camphor, and red Vaseline mixed together is a sure cure for piles.
To rid yourself of a corn, grease it with a mixture of castor oil and kerosene and then soak the foot in warm water.
Sulfur mixed with lard is good for bad blood.
A cloth heated with melted tallow will give relief when applied to a pain in any part of the body.
Wear a raw cotton string tied in nine knots around your waist to cure cramps.
To stop nosebleed or hiccups cross two straws on top of your head.
Lick the back of your hand and swallow nine times without stopping to cure hiccups.
To stump your right foot is good luck, but to stump your left foot is bad luck. To prevent the bad luck you must turn around three times. (Georgia Narratives, vol. 4, part 4, pp. 282-289)
Finally, in case your ailment comes from someone placing a spell upon you, the following precautions could be taken:
Wearing a dime around your ankle wards off witchcraft.
Put a silver dime in your mouth to determine whether you have been bewitched; if it comes out black, there is a witch at work, and if it comes out clean there is not.
If a witch rides you, put a sifter under the bed and he will have to count the holes in the sifter before he goes out, giving you time to catch him (ibid).
Oliphant, Louise. Works Progress Administration (WPA) Slave Narrative Project, Georgia Narratives, vol. 4, part 4, pp. 282-289.
Voeks, Robert. "African Medicine and Magic in the Americas." Geographical Review 83, no. 1 (January 1993): 66-78.
Troy D. Smith