African-American Traditional Remedies Have Rich History

By Ansorge, Rick | The Florida Times Union, March 31, 1999 | Go to article overview
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African-American Traditional Remedies Have Rich History

Ansorge, Rick, The Florida Times Union

The next time you pop a capsule of St.-John's-wort -- the herb that's become wildly popular as a treatment for mild depression -- you'll be taking part in an ancient and honorable folk tradition: African-American folk medicine.

For centuries, African-Americans have used St.-John's-wort, a plant once called High John the Conqueror, to treat scrapes, strains and burns.

"It was considered one of the most powerful herbs for healing and bringing good luck," said Yvonne Chireau, a religion professor at Pennsylvania's Swarthmore College and a leading authority on African-American folk medicine.

Long before such remedies received a stamp of approval from conventional medicine, African-Americans were using the wild horehound plant to treat colds and garlic to treat infections.

Some remedies were brought over from Africa. For instance, petals from the African plant okra were used to cure boils. Wild yam was used to cure indigestion.

Other remedies derived from plants growing wild in the New World.

During the slavery era, African-Americans didn't often have access to conventional medical care. So they used such everyday materials as herbs, clay, tallow, spiderwebs, axle grease and turpentine.

In America, many slaves became known as expert healers. In 1729, the lieutenant governor of Virginia praised one such healer who "performed many wonderful cures of diseases" with a concoction of roots and bark. They also borrowed folk remedies from other cultures, including American Indians, Anglo-Americans and Haitian voodoo healers.

"African-American folk medicine is a melange," said Chireau. "That's what makes it unique."

Only now is this tradition receiving due recognition, according to a report by the Kellogg Foundation's African-American Health Care Project

"Today, mainstream scientists are finally acknowledging the efficacy of so-called folk medicines and other formulations devised and used for centuries by traditional practitioners throughout the world, including Africans and African-Americans," the authors write.

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