episode 15. Doctoring Women: The Healers and Resistors in Plantation Sickcare

As diseases like typhoid, diphtheria and tuberculosis ran rampant through Antebellum America, it was the enslaved Black women that carried out most of the sickcare on plantations in the South. This week, we dive into plantation sickcare and the women that made it possible. From the last rung of the social totem pole in which they diligently worked, to the remarkable care and treatment they provided all of their patients, these women were true doctors of their time yet barely known for it. Learn about their incredible contributions to medicine and the art of healing, and join us for our Feminist Corner discussion about “hood feminism” and its juxtaposition to “white feminism” as we analyze this topic together!

Feminist Corner:

Hood Feminism: “Hood feminism is lived feminism. It’s the women who do the work, who are present in communities and making sure that their kids have school and at least somewhat accessible medical care.” -Mikki Kendall, the author of “Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot”

Can you think of any influences that enslaved women’s doctoring practices have had on medicine today? Or maybe any practices today that reminded you of their healing work?

White slaveholding women had some role in caring for the sick on a plantation, but they were in a place of privileged subordination because of where they existed in the social strata of the antebellum south. What are some roles you think white female healthcare providers have now in the health of Black patients and families? 

Listen to the episode, discuss these questions with friends and family, let us know what you think!

Show Notes:

Sickcare on plantations in the antebellum period (before and during the civil war) has a rich history, specifically pertaining to the enslaved Black women who were the unspoken leaders of antebellum sickcare.

There are three broad influences on African American doctoring traditions.

  • African healing practices, a combination of tribal medicine of the Igbo, Yoruba, Bambara, Kongo and more as well as South American and Caribbean influences like Hatian voodoo and Brazilian Cadomblé.
  • Influence of Native American medicine, because both Europeans and Africans in America drew from plant knowledge of indigenous people
  • European doctoring practices, because Europeans and Africans borrowed from each other in colonial cities, towns and plantations. 

Medical doctors would visit plantations and maximize the “soundness” of enslaved workers, which as a concept was the health of the slave measured in their capacity for labor, reproduction and willingness to submit to authority, at the time of sale.

Most of the sickcare was done by older enslaved women, who grew herbs, made medicines, cared for the sick, prepared the dead for burial and attended births in both Black and White households across the South. 

These women, whom slaveholders called “nurses” “doctresses” and “midwives” did their doctoring work on top of agricultural labor, childbearing, childcare and caring for their families. 

Though they had immense medical knowledge and were the main caregivers on plantations, they were not regarded with the same level of professionalism of white male doctors, nor with the same maternal authority of white women. 

In their communities however, they weren’t seen as menial workers but as having skill in relation to collective need, spiritual revelation and teaching from older generations. They were key to life on the plantation. 

They did a variety of things on the plantation. 

  • Ex. measure, mix and cook medicines for their patients
  • Ex. care of their diets, making plain foods and special gruel for them
  • Ex. clean instruments, containers, bathe their patients and wash their bedclothes.

Some of these women started learning how to care for people with these conditions from the time they were children, getting instructions by oral teachings 

This is just a snippet of life on the plantation for enslaved women. Only by looking closely at the everyday world of enslaved sufferers and healers can we understand the remarkable legacy they imparted. 

If there’s only one point to take away from this history, it’s that African Americans emerged from enslavement with on one hand, a storehouse of healing knowledge and on the other hand, a clear comprehension of the harmful potential of white medical care. This is key to our understanding of where we go from here.

Sources:

Fett, S. M. (2002). Working cures: Healing, health, and power on southern slave plantations. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press

Kendall, M. (2021). Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot [EPub]. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Hood-Feminism-Notes-Movement-Forgot-ebook/dp/B07SVVPSNP

Kyere, E. (2020, July 30). Enslaved people’s health was ignored from the country’s beginning, laying the groundwork for today’s health disparities. Retrieved March 1, 2021, from https://theconversation.com/enslaved-peoples-health-was-ignored-from-the-countrys-beginning-laying-the-groundwork-for-todays-health-disparities-143339

Lambert, P. M. (n.d.). Infectious disease among enslaved African Americans at Eaton’s Estate, Warren County, North Carolina, ca. 1830-1850. Retrieved March 1, 2021, from http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0074-02762006001000017

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