Black Healing in Georgia: Landscapes of Past, Present, and Future
Access to nature can reduce anxiety, green schoolyards can impact students’ physical and socioemotional health, and environmental education can improve health-related quality of life. As environmental educators, we’re familiar with nature’s many gifts, including that of wellness and health.
The theme of Black History Month in 2022 focuses on the importance of Black health and wellness. In this blog post, we’ll look specifically at how Geechee communities in Georgia supported and prioritized community health.
From the West African Coast to the Georgia Low Country
In June 1821, Scottish explorer Major A.G. Laing traveled to the town of Konkodoogoree in Sierra Leone and was filled with awe at the rice fields there. As historian Karen Cook-Bell writes, Major Laing “found the fields of that area the best-tilled and best-laid out compared to any other region observed throughout his travels, marveling at ‘the construction of earthen embankments, canals, and sluices; the use of tides, flood recession, and rainfall for planting; specialized implements for preparing heavy soils; as well as the seasonal rotation in land use between rice fields and cattle pastures’” (2010).
In fact, all along the West African coast, rice fields built and managed largely by women thrived, and Major Laing was not the first explorer to note the expertise. Fifty years prior, the connection was made that coastal West Africans might have just the knowledge and skills to navigate the problems that Georgia colonists, 5,000 miles away, were struggling with.
The sweltering heat. The marshes. The estuarine environment, of both freshwater and saltwater. The need for flood management and soil upkeep. Rather than learn from the West Africans as humble students, the colonists chose crime.
For almost a hundred years, they engaged in the capturing, selling, and enslavement of, predominantly, the Gola, Kissi, Bambara, Kongo, Igbo, Wolof, Mende, Temne, Twi, Serer and Vai groups, who were confined for weeks, sometimes even months, then shipped across the Atlantic Ocean, rarely surviving the deadly Middle Passage, to arrive in Savannah, Georgia, there to be sold at auction, for their knowledge of rice cultivation (Georgia Historical Society). These enslaved Africans became known as the Geechee, the word perhaps deriving from the Kissi of Sierra Leone.
Cook-Bell summarizes, “African indigenous knowledge of rice culture provided the principles and flexibility for adapting rice production to conditions in the Georgia Low Country.” As other scholars have remarked, there is no U.S. agricultural history without the expertise and labor of African people who were enslaved across the South, particularly, the Geechee in Georgia.
Women-Led Communal Health Care
Peach tree leaves calm stomach aches. Pine tops in baths ease breathing. In “The Roots of Healing: Archeological and Historical Investigations of African-American Herbal Medicine,” (2004) anthropologist Erin Brooke Hamby offers a glimpse at the tremendous botanic knowledge held in Black communities:
Colds were cured with mullein while dog fennel and corn were good for chills, and holly treated a chill and a fever. Juniper eased the labored breathing of asthma. The pain of rheumatism was assisted with angelica. Pinetop tea treated colds during the Late Antebellum and Contemporary time periods. Sassafras was used as a blood cleanser. Chinaberry, jimson weed, and tulip poplar got rid of worms and laurel was good for itching. Elderberry worked wonders with sores. Horse nettle was reported to have been used as an aphrodisiac from the Antebellum to the present. Cotton, mentioned previously, was an effective abortifacient.
Black herbalists were often believed to be called upon by God to heal through medicinal plant use. They could treat a multitude of illnesses including worms, colds, fevers, skin rashes, and high blood pressure, as well as malaria, dysentery, and tuberculosis. In Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations (2002), Sharla M. Fett describes the herbalists’ expertise:
The herbal practitioner’s work began with the ability to identify a wide range of plants at various stages of growth. In the dense woods or marshy lowlands an herbalist had to be able to identify specific plants and distinguish between poisonous and curative ones. Next the herbalist considered several subtle factors about harvesting the plant. She or he needed to know when a plant was ready for picking, at what time of day or lunar cycle it would be most potent, what part of the plant to use for particular remedies, and how much could be safely given.
Herbalists were most often elder women in the community. And just as Geechee women learned the specialized knowledge for rice cultivation from their foremothers, female intergenerational knowledge underpinned too, the communal health care system of the Geechee. Mothers passed down botany, medicinal, and birthing knowledge to their daughters, these gifts being far stronger than that of objects or currency. As Josephine Beoku-Betts observes in “We Got Our Way of Cooking Things: Women, Food, and Preservation of Cultural Identity among the Gullah” (1995), African-derived systems of knowledge strengthened women-centered networks amid community-centeredness.
Fett describes the culture of healing in slave quarters of southern plantations as:
…A powerful resource for survival, resistance, and community building. Enslaved sufferers pursued a vision of health that valued personal and community integrity over the maintenance of productive and reproductive labor. Black healers grounded their work in notions of spiritual power, human relationships, and community resourcefulness, thus addressing a much wider range of healing needs than slaveholders considered legitimate.
Black healing was a threat to white domination; as Fett concludes, “any suggestion of independent care for the body signaled a potential threat to the slaveholder’s control over enslaved laborers.”
Challenged by African American medical and environmental expertise, white doctors aimed to discredit Black healing by distinguishing their own knowledge by educational level, all the meanwhile barring African Americans from those opportunities. In fact, in 1770, the state of Georgia had already established the following law: “Slaves are not permitted to administer medicine to any other slave except on direction of some white person” (Georgia Archives).
Age is knowledge. Health is a community enterprise. Healing is spiritual. Despite all the obstacles, in these ways, the Geechee community defied colonizer structures, defining Black health in terms that emphasized the community and upheld its female members.
Present Initiatives in Georgia
As environmental educators, there are many kinds of stories we must tell. The nature we see today as therapeutic, beautiful, and harmless, can also be bandages covering unhealed wounds, pains flooded into silence (for a literal example, see Amber Ruffian’s reference to Georgia’s Lake Lanier in her segment “Beyond Tulsa: The Secret History of Flooding Black Towns to Create Lakes”). These histories are burdens to be carried by environmental educators, released by the power of education to fulfill justice and reconciliation.
Not only rice harvesting techniques and intergenerational botanical and medicinal knowledge, but also dialect, crafts of basket weaving and net making, and African-inspired meals, have contributed to the base of Geechee culture that underpin community and wellbeing. What is significant, is that all these rely on their landscapes of past, present, and future.
Continued ownership by the Geechee of the land they have tended for decades is integral to the community and culture’s continuation. Yet throughout the 1950s–1990s, schemes, forced sales, and the development of high-priced waterfront properties, as reported by Leah Douglas of The Nation, displaced many Geechee people.
Environmental educators speak broadly of public access to nature, nature as a right, nature as a ubiquitous solution for education, health, and more. But the stories we should also share and advocate for are those of unique communities’ access to the landscapes of their generations, such as Geechee land continuity, or Indigenous maintenance of their own tribal lands.
As such, present initiatives like below are quite relevant to environmental educators. The following three programs are ongoing in Georgia today as efforts to maintain Geechee, African American, and Black culture and community, first mostly by the land. If you know of others, please don’t hesitate to use the comment function to share information.
The Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society (SICARS) works to preserve and support the Hog Hammock community, one of fifteen African American Saltwater Geechee settlements on Sapelo Island, Georgia. SICARS emphasizes community education, land use & community planning, and sustainable economic development as key initiatives to maintain Geechee culture on descendent-owned land for generations to come.
In collaboration with Geechee activist Maurice Bailey and University of Georgia professor Nik Heynen, SICARS has acres of land under cultivation, mostly sugarcane and Geechee Red Peas, with other heritage crops underway such as sour oranges, indigo, and garlic.
Sixth-generation Geechee farmer siblings Matthew and Althea Raiford maintain Gilliard Farm, with land purchased by his great-grandfather Jupiter Gilliard in 1874, and whose ancestors come from the rice-growing regions of Ghana and Cameroon. In an interview with Huffington Post, farmer, chef, and cookbook author Matthew Raiford shares:
How we participated in growing and cultivating our food is an often forgotten part of history. My goal is to reclaim the work done by my people, to shed light on where agriculture is rooted in our culture, and to advise how new generations can follow some of these traditions…By applying the principles of community and economics, we can better the food system, and preserve the well-being and health of the African diaspora. It is past time for someone to start doing this, not just in an academic environment.
Freedom, Georgia is 96 acres of land in Wilkinson County, Georgia purchased by 19 Black families in 2020 to create a safe community of environmental sustainability, health and wellness, cooperative economics, and arts and culture for generations to come. Currently, the Freedom Georgia Initiative is distributing 6-acre plots for home and farm businesses, building a community garden, and providing camping, fishing, and survival skills events.
Bell, K. C. (2010). “Rice, resistance, and forced transatlantic communities: (re)envisioning the African diaspora in low country Georgia, 1750-1800.” The Journal of African American History, 95(2), 157–182.
Beoku-Betts, J. A. (1995). We Got Our Way of Cooking Things: Women, Food, and Preservation of Cultural Identity among the Gullah. Gender and Society, 9(5), 535–555.
Fett, S. M. (2002). Working cures: Healing, health, and power on southern slave plantations. University of North Carolina Press.
Hamby, E. B. (2004). "The roots of healing: Archaeological and historical investigations of African-American herbal medicine. " [Doctoral dissertation, University of Tennessee]. https://trace.tennessee.edu/utk_graddiss/4543
Want to learn more? Visit the Black History Month resource page.
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Connect with our affiliate, the Environmental Education Alliance of Georgia.