Celebrating the Legacy of Black Herbalists
Herbal medicine as we know it today would not exist without the wisdom, ancestral plant knowledge and rich traditions of Black herbalists. In honour of Black History Month, we are celebrating the resiliency and legacy of Black herbalists by sharing influential herbalists that paved the way for our generation, along with some incredible herbalists and educators that you should support.
Understanding Where It All Started
As herbalism gains popularity, it’s important for us to understand the origins and cultural practices that led to the herbal knowledge we enjoy today.
Over 400 years ago, enslaved Africans were brought to the United States to work as forced labourers during the colonization of America. With a deep knowledge of agriculture, many brought herbal medicine traditions and seeds to sow along with them. Their knowledge of plant medicine expanded as they came to know Indigenous peoples, who taught them how to identify and access the medicinal properties of their local flora.
For many enslaved people, accessing plant medicine in this way was empowering and a welcome reprieve from life on the plantations. This bond with nature allowed for moments of joy, delicious flavour, emotional healing, physical wellness and deep connection to spirit.
This did not come without risk. Not only did it become illegal for enslaved people to teach or learn about herbal medicine, but their knowledge was also appropriated by Europeans and re-packaged to erase its history. Fortunately, there were many who continued to practice herbal medicine and used their knowledge to help those who needed it most.
Black Herbalists That Paved the Way
Born in 1857, Henrietta Jeffries was another influential Black healer from North Carolina. Although there were laws against midwifing at the time, Henrietta shared her wisdom and knowledge of plant medicine to help many members of her community give birth safely. Enduring racism and bigotry, she was brought to trial in 1911 for “practicing medicine without a license,” and faced a jury of 12 white men who found her guilty.
Fortunately, the judge presiding over the case wasn’t so quick to find Henrietta guilty. Judge Cooke asked attendees of the court to stand up if they had been delivered by Henrietta. Remarkably, the entire courthouse stood up. Once the magnitude of her contribution to the community was recognized, the trial was dismissed, and Henrietta was given permission to continue her practice.
Many of us know of Harriet Tubman as a leader of the Underground Railroad. Did you know she was also an herbalist and avid forager? Enslavers banned herbal practices because they were afraid of being poisoned, but that didn’t mean the medicine or herbal traditions were forgotten.
While helping hundreds of enslaved people escape during the 1800’s, Harriet foraged edible and medicinal plants to keep rescued families sustained on their long, difficult journey. Harriet’s grandmother taught her many herbal remedies that were essential during this time. She used herbs to treat smallpox, fevers, infectious diseases and wounds. There is no doubt that Harriet’s skills kept many people alive and nourished on their journey to freedom.
Born in 1897 in Falkland, North Carolina, Emma Dupree was known by her family as “that little medicine thing” — a storied symbol of her connection to the land and plant medicine. Emma cultivated a garden-grown pharmacy and spent her days formulating teas, tonics, salves and dried preparations to support the wellness of her community. A documentary about her work and medicine garden was put together by researchers at East Carolina University in 1979.
In her later years, Emma shared her traditional knowledge with doctors and medical anthropologists seeking to understand the medicinal properties of native plants. In 1992, Emma was awarded the North Carolina Heritage Award, in recognition of her notable contributions to her community.
Uplifting Black Herbalists of Today
Brianna created Moss Medicine to provide her community with the knowledge and tools to take their wellbeing into their own hands. She creates tinctures and smoke blends in deep alignment with nature and the lunar cycle.
Jamesa created JamHaw Herbals to serve as a platform for their herbal wellness community as well as an apothecary of handcrafted herbal medicine. They intentionally source their herbs from BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ growers who focus on regenerative farming.
Karen M. Rose
Karen is a Master Herbalist who is dedicated to empowering people to make informed decisions about their health and lifestyle. She created Sacred Vibes Apothecary in 2002 to provide herbal products, apprenticeship classes and mentoring programs to her community.
Alexis is a foraging teacher and environmental enthusiast that creates engaging and informative videos about herbs on social media. She teaches her audience how to accurately identify and extract herbs, and how we can incorporate commonly found herbs into our daily routines. Follow Alexis on Instagram here and subscribe to her Patreon here to support her work.
Resources to Continue Learning
Roots of African American Herbalism
This article was written by Alyson Morgan for The Herbal Academy. Roots of African American Herbalism: Herbal Use by Enslaved Americans details the rich history and influence of African American herbalism in North America. We drew information from this article to help readers understand where it all started.
African American Herbalism
Lucretia VanDyke discusses the origins of herbal practices rooted in African American tradition in her book, African American Herbalism: A Practical Guide to Healing Plants and Folk Traditions. It includes stories of herbal healers that made modern herbalism what it is today.
Farming While Black
Leah Penniman created a how-to guide for all farmers to understand the distinct and technical contributions of those from African heritage to sustainable agriculture in her book Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land.
Black in the Garden Podcast
Hosted by Colah B. Tawkin, the Black in the Garden Podcast amplifies Black voices within the plant industry. She discusses the intersection of Black culture and horticulture within a wide range of topics that impact Black communities and their relationships to the earth.
This resource is just the tip of the iceberg. We encourage our community to continue learning about the impact Black Herbalists have always had and will continue to have on the practice of herbal medicine.
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