Celebrating Black History Month | Herbalist Emma Dupree

In this photo, Black Herbalist Emma is picking some Goldenrod flowers.

Photograph by Mary Anne McDonald

This North Carolina Herbalist was nicknamed “little medicine thing” and “woods gal” because as a kid she was always roaming outside looking for, and learning about, medical herbs. In her later years she was also know as “granny woman,” which is a title given to folk healer elders in Appalachia.

Emma lived a long life (from 1897 to 1996) and helped countless people, who at times would line up outside her porch to gain her help and receive her tonics. Her home herb garden overflowed with healing herbs such as pokeweed, rabbit tobacco, silkweed, sage, sassafras, tansy, jimson weed and a tree she called her “healing berry tree”. She was truly a community healer and it was said that there was always something brewing in her house.

Sage, a great medicinal herb to have in your garden

Of Emma, another Black Herbalist Safiyyah Bazemore writes “As I continue to grow and spread my branches ever outward as a Black herbalist, I can’t help but think of the roots that have led me to this moment. Roots like Emma. Roots that span centuries, cross continents, and roots that are intimately aware of the resiliency required amidst modern erasure and oppression. While Western herbalism still often lacks discussion and recognition of the contributions from Black herbalists, it is my hope that learning Emma Dupree’s story encourages you in more ways than one.”

Emma’s parents were actually born as enslaved people (which means that I was alive while Emma was a 1st generation free person, for perspective on how resent the extreme oppression of black Americans was). As an elder, Emma shared her knowledge with physicians and medical anthropologists, and received the Brown-Hudson and North Carolina Heritage Awards for her contributions.

While I couldn’t find a published book from her (her knowledge was more shared via storytelling and word of mouth), there is a movie about her, called Little Medicine Thing. There are also interviews (like this one) if you want to check out more!

Thanks for reading!

Stay Green Plant Lovers!