Plantation owners had a vested interest in protecting the health of their slaves and often either provided basic medical services personally or hired a physician. Slaves also took an active role in their own physical well-being. Doing so not only helped them stay healthy, it also gave them a measure of control over their lives—indeed, sometimes medical treatment became a contested issue between enslaver and enslaved.
Men and women known as root doctors or root workers, who had working knowledge of roots and herbs and their various medicinal applications, were the slave community's chief means of medical care. Slaves were in a unique position to learn about local flora, as they worked closely with it at all times. The more specialized knowledge of the root doctor, however, usually required not only keen observation of the natural world but also training by an experienced mentor. This mentor was generally an elderly slave, although sometimes he or she might be a Native American who had married into the family or who was part of an Indian community that sheltered fugitive slaves. As former North Carolina slave John Jackson told an interviewer in 1937: "You know, they lays a heap o' stress on edication these days. But edication is one thing, an' fireside trainin' is another. We had fireside trainin'" (Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives).
The vocation of root doctor was not merely a physical pursuit. It involved not only knowledge of the natural world but also a connection to the sacred. The historian Sharla M. Fett, in her book Working Cures, describes the root doctor's calling as both "spiritual and practical"—a "holy work" (2002, p. 36). Yvonne Chireau describes the root doctor's milieu as "an enchanted universe" (1997, p. 239). Physical suffering and spiritual outlook were linked in a delicate web of connections, and it was the root doctor's job not only to provide the proper herbal remedy but to ascertain the source of imbalance. Doctoring, then, as Chireau notes, was not just "a quaint and marginal folk practice"—it was an essential aspect of the community bond (p. 239).
The ministrations of root doctors were often hidden from masters' eyes—but not always. Sometimes, in fact, whites used their services for their slaves, or even for themselves. In 1729 an elderly slave named Papan was freed by the Virginia government in exchange for a recipe of "Roots and Barks," which alleviated the effects of various venereal diseases. In 1749 the South Carolina Assembly freed a slave named Caesar in return for his poison and snakebite remedy; another root doctor, Sampson, was manumitted by the same body six years later in return for his rattlesnake bite remedy of "heart snakeroot, polypody, avens root, and rum."
After emancipation, African Americans continued to utilize the services of root doctors and conjurers. Many lacked access to formally trained medical practitioners or could not afford the expensive costs of their services. Moreover, widespread racial hostility ensured that white doctors often provided inferior treatment to African American patients. Terrifying stories of physical abuse, experimentation, and mutilation circulated widely among African Americans, leading to a general mistrust of the white medical profession. In contrast, the services of root doctors and conjurers were relatively low cost, accessible, and trustworthy.
In addition, root work continued to inform African American religious beliefs and customs. During World War I, Charles Harris Mason, an African American minister and founder of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), was arrested in Lexington, Mississippi, for preaching antigovernment sermons and obstructing the draft. On examining Mason's belongings, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents discovered an interesting array of religious paraphernalia including anointing oil, apocalyptic images, biblical passages that supported pacifism, and a selection of roots. According to FBI reports, Mason had converted to the Pentecostal faith during the Asuza Street Revival in Los Angeles in 1907. Mason claimed that the spirit of God had descended upon him bestowing the power to speak in tongues, discern spirits, prophesy, and read signs in nature indicative of the end of times. Mason's use of roots in combination with more traditional Pentecostal artifacts is indicative of the survival of root work and its fusion with other religious customs.
Chrireau, Yvonne P. Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
Kornweibel, Theodore, ed. Federal Surveillance of Afro-Americans, 1917–1925: The First World War, the Red Scare, and the Garvey Movement. Frederick, MD: University Publications of America, 1985.
One ex-slave named Sally told an interviewer the story of her owners' illness and treatment. At the time of the interview, December 14, 1936, Sally was eighty years old. Her husband Bob's age was not recorded.
Finally, de Marster, he tuck down sick, and in spite o' all dat Missus do fer him, maw lowed he kept a growin' worser and worser till he tuck and died one bad night. Missus, 'Dandy' de Marster allus called her, had got so broke down wid worry and sorrow, dat she wuz nigh to death's door, herself, when de Marster died, maw said. Fer dat reason, dey kept it from her fer two weeks. Dey thought dat she was gwine to have de neumonia, like him, but she started gittin' well fore she tuck de neumonia. Maw said dat dey used all o' de ole nigger remedies on de Missus dat dey knowed and fer dat reason dey brung her through. Maw is told me dem remedies but I so ole now, dat I just remembers dem. If Bob wuz at hisself he could give you some. You come by here some day when de moon is right and den Bob'll be in his right mind to tell you some o' dem. (Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives)
Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writer's Project, 1936–1938. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. South Carolina Narratives, vol. 14, part 3. Available from http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/snhtml/snhome.html.
Chireau, Yvonne. "Conjure and Christianity in the Nineteenth Century: Religious Elements in African American Magic." Religion and American Culture 7, no. 2 (1997): 225-246.
Fett, Sharla M. Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
Rawick, George P., ed. The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1972–1979.
Troy D. Smith