Harriett Tubman was an herbalist, and hardly the first. The practice of using herbs for medicine dates to the Paleolithic Age, some 60,000 years ago.
It was a skillset used throughout Tubman’s life and one that was essential in her role as the force behind the Underground Railroad. She, as well as other conductors, would have needed knowledge of the landscape to survive and a familiarity with common plants that could be used for food and nourishment on the path to freedom.
“The Legacy of Black Herbalism” will be the topic of a talk and tour at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden on Wednesday, Oct. 4. Food anthropologist, writer and podcaster Debra Freeman will take participants through the history of Black herbalism, followed by a tour through the gardens to identify some of the plants enslaved people would have used (Also it was announced just this week, that Freeman will be Style Weekly's new food editor!).
Freeman began writing about food six years ago and was immediately captured by the connection between food and history. She was particularly interested in the contributions that Black people made to the culinary world, and the more she researched, the more documentation she found. “I quickly began to realize that when it comes to Southern food, you have to talk about Black hands because there is no Southern food without those hands,” she says.
Freeman’s talk about herbalism is part of a larger movement to rewrite American, and particularly Southern foodways to include the enslaved Black people who shaped it. The sheer number of dishes that were created or inspired by Black Americans reads like a menu of so-called American classics: macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, gumbo, barbecue, biscuits.
“Macaroni and cheese was brought to Virginia by James Hemings, who was enslaved by Thomas Jefferson. American barbecue has its start in Virginia by the enslaved pitmasters who had the intelligence and skill to create incredible meats by touch, sight, and smell,” she explains. “All these American dishes are popular throughout the world because they were perfected by African Americans.”
- Freeman's subjects have included "everything from African Americans’ relationship with veganism to – on the other end of the culinary spectrum – the birthplace of American barbecue. "
When enslaved Africans were brought to this country, most of their traditions were taken away, including herbalism, which had to be done in secret to escape notice by slavers. Those who chose to practice it risked punishment by death because of a law in Virginia that forbade Black people from preparing or administering medicine. The law was later amended in the mid-1800s so that African Americans could sell medicine, and in almost all cases, the money went to their owners.
Freeman’s talk will cover the many Virginia plants that were commonly used in herbalism. Tobacco was used for bee stings, insect bites, and help with constipation. Cotton root helped induce labor. Corn silk reduces kidney inflammation and helps with urinary tract infections. Sassafras is a blood purifier and used for colds. While she’s not yet found documentation, Freeman thinks it’s highly likely that enslaved people grew herbs in their gardens. “Black people grew or foraged for herbs for their medicinal use,” Freeman explains. “But often, they didn’t share what they were using them for.”
Unsurprisingly, not all the herbs used in Africa were found in Virginia. Early enslaved people had to use knowledge from what had been done in Africa and then either look for similarities in plants or essentially learn what native Virginia plants would be helpful for those medicinal uses. “It’s important to note that herbs and plants were used for spiritual nourishment as well,” Freeman says.
Once slavery ended, the widespread usage of herbalism declined in most Black communities. As Black people moved to larger cities after the Civil War, there was less access to land, which meant there wasn’t any place for people to grow the herbs necessary to continue herbalism. “It’s more common to find people who still use herbs rather than commercial medication in more rural areas,” she notes. “Particularly in the South.”
Because Black herbalists of the 19th century were largely written out of history, researchers such as Freeman are making it their job to pass on this legacy.
“Their work was critical to helping sick people, both enslaved and white,” she says. “It’s profound to think that their knowledge of medicinal horticulture may have even saved an ancestor of mine, which may have led to me being here today.”
The Legacy of Black Herbalism talk and tour with Debra Freeman will be held on Wednesday, Oct. 4 at 6 p.m. at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, 1800 Lakeside Ave. Visit Lewisginter.org for more information