Skip to Main Content

Black History Month: A Medical Perspective: Folk Medicine

Black History Month: A Medical Perspective - Exhibited February-March 1999 and February-March 2006

Medical Folklore of Black Americans

Medical Folklore of Black Americans contains elements from European and African beliefs, blended with religious elements associated with Christianity and African voodoo. Folk medicine consists of traditional healing concepts and methods used in past cultures by people deemed to have the healing power. Often based on religious beliefs, these practices are used to cure diseases and promote emotional and physical well being.

The practice of folk medicine is usually handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. In general, this system was used because traditional medicine failed to support blacks and poor whites.

SPANISH MOSS (Also referred to as Crape-moss and Old man's beard)

  • When boiled, the concoction is used to bathe swellings and also relieve pains associated with rheumatism
  • Boiled (when green) - drink the "tea" for easy delivery at childbirth
  • Increases the flow of mother's milk
  • Assists in promoting the delivery of the "afterbirth"
  • Taken twice daily to "clean out" after giving birth
  • When green, can be put in shoes to lower blood pressure
  • When crushed, apply to hemorrhoids
  • When tied around the neck, it relieves sprained neck


  • Apply twice a day for herpes to encourage the healing process
  • Avoid eating peanuts during this time since they work against the natural healing in the body


  • Mix some cayenne pepper with aloe juice and rub over sore muscles or arthritic joints
  • Also good for bee stings


  • Aids the healing of burns and sores
  • Can also be taken internally for stomach disorders


  • For acid stomach, make a drink of ½ teaspoon baking soda and a few drops of lemon juice in ½ cup warm water


  • Many rheumatism specifics are found in Negro "leechcraft"
  • Leeches are used in many modern orthopedic facilities today to keep the circulation in injured limbs and digits from gumming up during the healing process


  • Grease stewed from a black dog is a helpful cure for rheumatism, though some say it should be put on in the dark of the moon to be most effective


  • A snake skin, especially the skin of a rattlesnake, dried and tied around the wrist or leg is good for rheumatism
  • Worn around the waist, it will prolong life
  • The flexibility of the snake may have been the quality which first suggested its use to cure stiffness


  • For rheumatism, asthma, and "jerking fits" (epilepsy), two wing feathers of a buzzard are effective if burned under the nose and the smoke inhaled


  • A coin, especially a (silver) dime, worn about the neck or ankle will surely stop rheumatism


  • Used to regulate blood pressure and relieve cramps
  • Crush one clove of garlic in a glass of hot milk and drink quickly


  • Tie the hair up with eelskin to make it grow
  • Wear it around the head to cure headache
  • If worn about the wrist, it will relieve pain there
  • Rubbing the part of an aching back with an eelskin is an effective relief


  • Sew "live woodlice" into a pouch and hang around baby's neck to relieve pain and fever associated with "teething"
  • When the woodlice die, the teeth come through
  • Currently used in the rural south
  • The "woodlouse" is the Porcellio scaber
  • Not to be confused with white ants or termites

Other Folk Beliefs

From: Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro, 1926

To break your husband of drinking, skin a live eel, put the skin in some liquor and give it to him. He will never drink again.

Go into the chicken house and let the chickens fly over you, or simply push the patient backward into the henhouse.

Chills and Fever
Cut a notch in a piece of wood for every chill you have had, blow on it, and throw it into a running stream where you never expect to pass again. Go home without looking back, and you will have no more chills.

Typhoid fever may be cured by taking a bath in steeped peach leaves, while a young black chicken is split open and applied bloody and hot to the chest.

Let a child who has never seen his father, or is a seventh daughter, walk across your back.

Pick an aching tooth with a splinter (from the north side of a pine tree that has been struck by lightning) and throw the sliver into running water.

May be cured by holding your breath and taking nine swallows of water. Nine grains of pepper for nine mornings or nine shots held in the mouth are equally effective.

Sore Throat
Tie the sock that you have worn all day around your throat with the sole of the sock turned towards your skin. Some believe that salt or warm ashes should be put into the stocking and some insist upon using a dark stocking.

Take the head off a wood beetle and drop the one drop of blood that comes out into the aching ear. For similar results, get some hair from a young girl and place it in your ear.