... REMINISCING ABOUT THE AFRICAN
1941, the report of the St. Mary's
Hospital Superintendent Mrs. Ethel J.
VanCamp revealed the following
information. St. Mary's Hospital boasted
21 beds, 7 of which were in private
rooms and 14 in wards. During the
previous year a total of 529 patients
had been admitted, 124 of whom were at
public expense. There were 178
operations including 58 appendectomies.
There were 86 obstetrical cases, one of
which was a Caesarian section. One
hundred and sixty-three patients had
been seen at the hospital's eye clinic.
The hospital staff consisted of 6
nurses, 3 graduate and 3 practical. One
of each was scheduled on night duty."
[Regina Combs Hammett; History of St.
Mary's County, Maryland 1634 - 1990]
were growing up we didn't know what a
doctor looked like really. My mother had
all of us in the room or in the hall in
one way or another, and then a midwife
would come in and deliver the babies.
And that was it; she never went to a
hospital or nothing like that . . . .
Now listen to me very close, it was
seldom that we got sick walking in that
snow and ice and stuff, we didn't get
sick like the children do now.
only one hospital, St. Mary's Hospital,
where everybody went, and the
accommodation was limited. And no matter
what your ailment was, you were put in
the same room 'cause they only had, I
think, two or three beds in there, and
that remained in existence up until the
latter part of the '50's. Course, they
had all the black men together and the
black women together. No matter what
your ailment was, you were put in the
same room, and that could be contagious,
too, what disease you had. But, that was
all we had.
Hospital's segregated too - the same
thing. I don't know of anyplace in my
travels in this area that wasn't
segregated. When I say segregated, it
was separate. In the hospital, I worked
in the hospital as an orderly. I had
rights because I was working. I could go
anywhere I wanted to go. But they had
two rooms [for Blacks], one for the
women and one for the men.
went up the back steps. Didn't make no
difference whether it was rain or snow,
shine or what, you didn't go in that
front door. You went up those back steps
to get into the hospital. And that is
the way it was. And I don't know what
rule they used to operate that operation
but that's the way it was. That's the
way it was.
do with what you had" was the norm since
few doctors practiced in St. Mary's
County. Even as recently as 1951, there
were only eight practicing physicians in
St. Mary's County, a ratio of one
physician for every 3,000 people, as
compared to a national ratio of one
physician for every 750 people. Early in
the twentieth century, it appears that
only a few doctors, including Drs. F. A.
Camalier and P. J. Bean, were making
house calls in the county. The best
advice might have been "Don't get sick."
Cecelia Blackwell (1920 - )
had a doctor for all of us, and I had
midwives for all of mine because mine
were born too early in the morning. You
couldn't get a doctor! If you had to go
to the doctor, Papa would take us on his
back, when we were little, and he'd take
us on over there to Dr. Bean. Of course,
right across the woods and up the road
from where we were living.
don't know how you let [doctors] know. I
think somebody had to go to him. He had
a horse-and-buggy that was available. I
mean, Callaway's horse-and-buggy would
be available if you needed something,
and they would come to your house. The
doctors visited your home. And of
course, all the babies were born at
home, you know. But, [my parents]
believed in doctors. When we got sick,
we always went to the doctor.
I forget Dr. Bean There was a lot of
good in him, he was a faithful old
doctor. Yeah I remember him. He was very
nice. He would come by anyway anytime
that you needed him, he was very
faithful we all liked him and we
depended on him too.
one little doctor here that did
everything. His name was Dr. Bean, and
he did delivery and the coughing and the
patching, and he was the doctor that did
everything. . . . but most of the time,
your parents did all the remedies and
everything, you know, their own old-time
remedies. They were in a box. It had to
be something real bad for you to go to
limited health services, it is no wonder
that home remedies played such an
important part of Southern Maryland
rural life. African Americans may have
been more apt to rely on home remedies
since services for them historically
have been somewhat less available than
those provided to white Southern
Marylanders. UCAC has gathered a rich
archive of oral histories containing
information on home remedies. A saying
of the ancient philosophers was:
"necessity is the mother of invention."
Clarence C. Smith
and then, somebody got real sick, they
went over to Dr. P. J. Bean. Even I can
remember when his visits went from 50
cent to a dollar. And, that included
medicine. He gave you three or four
bottles [or] boxes of medicine included
in that cost. But the majority of
sickness, cuts, bruises or whatever,
home remedies took care them.
webs to help stop the bleeding. If you
stick a nail or something in your foot,
put a piece of fatback meat supposedly
to help draw the poison out so you
didn't get lockjaw. For colds, there
were some remedies that were so nasty
that I don't even want to try to
describe them. They seem to work, but
they sure did taste bad.
[even when] we got a bad cold. We had to
go in the snow to get to school. And go
out and get the wood and down to the
spring to get the water. Back and forth.
It would snow and hail [heavily], not
like what we have now. We would bundle
up some how or another and go out to the
woodpile and get the wood and cut the
wood down, and saw it and everything,
and bring it back to the house. We had
this old tin heater that was raggedy in
one room and the old wood stove that was
raggedy in another room. And that's what
you cook your food on. When we got these
bad colds [Mother] would take a teaspoon
of white Vaseline and kerosene and drop
it into the sugar or some type of sugar.
Then she would take the teaspoon of
sugar and the Vaseline and two drops or
three and she would [make us] take all
three and the next day that cold would
be all gone.
went to no doctors and we never took no
doctor's medicines or nothing. And it
got so we didn't even know what that
Alexander Forrest (1911 - 2009) (audio only - 2 minutes, 4 seconds)
We had doctors here. But they weren't
available like they are today. And of
course there were a lot of old remedies
that seemed to work. It became a
necessity 'cause you couldn't reach a
doctor and you had to what they called
"improvise." You got a cold, they had
certain things that you could mix up,
take it, and it would relieve the cold.
No question about that. I kid the
children now. I think we gave our
children some of them, I'm not too sure.
But what they called coal oil; they call
it--. Call it kerosene now. We used to
call it coal oil. You put two or three
drops of that with sugar on a teaspoon
and take it. Good for a sore throat. And
it worked. A lot of little things.
Mustard plasters to put on your chest to
relieve the congestion in your chest.
gosh, there were some people who were
very good at that - mixing. And you had
people who--. I'm trying to find a
proper name to call them. But who had
the skills of mixing these remedies,
that doctors did professionally, they
did it because it was handed down to
them from generation to generation. That
this worked. Try it. It'll work. And
that's the way we kind of halfway
survived our medical problems. And if
you got really bad, well then you'd call
the doctor. And you call him today, he
might come tomorrow or next day. And
he'd probably tell you, "Do this for him
until I get there." And that was the way
we survived. A lot of us survived, you
see I'm still here. (laughs)
grandmother used to do a lot of things.
If the children had what they call
"cradle cap," she used to wash their
heads with that soap. She used to make
soap and she'd wash their heads with
soap. If children had chest colds, she
used to make something called "mutton
taller" and put that on your chest and
put a flannel cloth over your chest.
And, those kinds of things. But for the
most part, the Health Department had a
health nurse who would come around and
we'd get that kind of care.
relied a lot on home remedies. To this
day, I will try home remedies first
before I go to my doctor. Vinegar was a
product that was used a lot when I was a
little kid growing up. Vinegar and
onions. When you had colds, Mother would
slice onion, sprinkle it with sugar, and
give you the syrup off of the onion to
drink. And then, she had us eat the
slices of onions, too. And Father John
Kaufman; everybody relied on Father John
for the coughs.
Smith Gaskin (1919 - 1998) (audio only - 3 minutes, 12 seconds)
know if castor oil is a home remedy!
[laughter] Now, but they used that for
colds. For fevers, I know they used
brown paper dipped in vinegar and put it
across the forehead. Leave it there for
awhile. And of course, the fever would
dry out the paper, and then they'd keep
dipping and dipping until the fever went
down. And, Vaseline and sugar for
coughs. Take it. Eat it.
And, the spoonful of Vaseline and put
the sugar on top of it, coated with
sugar. For earaches, you use sweet oil,
something like an olive oil. My
grandfather would go out in the early
Spring and get sassafras, and he'd peel
it and make a tea out of the bark. It
was supposed to be very healthy for you
in the Spring and ward off, you know, a
lot of diseases. Would make you strong.
They did mustard plasters and Vicks.
Yes, the mustard plaster they'd put on
your chest and around your waist. Lemon
and castor oil and lemon tea with a
little bit of alcohol juice, something
in it, and that would make you perspire,
and get the fever out.
When there was something very serious,
they called for the doctor and he'd come
and give you medicine and say you have
to stay in or what. Like-Let's see. Flu
would make these teas, sassafras tea.
She would gather these rosemary and
different kinds of weeds and make it
like a drink. And, I know there was one
thing that she bought. If we had any
problem with the stomach, she would
always give us castor oil, which I
In the spring, we would get this poke
salad. My mother always used to get this
poke salad, and she would save this old,
good old ham and cook with this poke
salad. I did not like pork belly, but
you would be surprised. It's a cleanser.
It is really good. And, you get it when
it's about, well, I would say, eight
inches tall because it grows up like a
bush. And, you scald it and then you
drain it. And then, the ham is almost
already done because it doesn't take
long. But, I would not eat that pork
belly. It had some kind of taste to it.
But, for the last 15 years, I've been
getting [poke]. One good place to get
it, where they cut the grass on Siber
Road and it comes up fresh. It comes up
every spring. And, I would go out and
get it. So, now I have it all down the
back of my house. I've been growing all
that the last two, three years, but it
really makes you feel good.
This is the funniest thing. [My parents]
are not doctors. Those old people could
come up with things. And, I mean it
really helped because I guess they had
to do something.
The only time we would go to a doctor is
when we were sick, and it seemed like we
Everlyn Louise Swales Holland (1932 -
) (1 minute, 57 seconds)
. . .
providing health care, there wasn't
really a lot you did. A lot of remedies,
a lot of things that my grandmother used
She, when children had something, she
called-- if they had a cold or chest
cold, she would put mutton tallow-–and
it was rendered sheep fat. She would put
that on their chest, and she would put a
flannel cloth on your chest. Those type
of things. And, she would give you some
remedy, something that came in a bottle.
We took [chuckle], also, a lot of cod
liver oil. My mother believed in that
and we had to take that cod liver oil.
In fact, we took it every day. They used
to come in little capsules. First it was
in a bottle and then there were
capsules. So, [they] gave you that to
But other than that, if you got a cut on
your leg or whatever, some break in your
skin, it was washed and it was cleaned
and you put a clean cloth on it. And if
you were bleeding, one of my father's
relatives, he used to say, "Put tobacco
on it" and they would put–-fold tobacco
and put that on to stop the bleeding,
and that's essentially what happened.
Of course, when you had–children were
delivered, you had a midwife. And, the
midwife came to your house, delivered
the baby, took care of the baby and
mother for a certain length of time and
then she would, you know, she would
leave; and, that's how those things were
taken care of.
of sickness that they have now, people
weren't having it. Cholesterol problem
and all that. 'Cause we ate plenty a
meat, you know. I mean, just take that
fat meat and slice it, put it on a pan
of water and soak it, and pour the water
off to get some of the salt off it. Just
fry it and just eat it. It's like you
would, you know, have that and pancakes
and molasses. That old black molasses
and egg. That was breakfast. You know,
but now, you can't eat that kind of
dad would say when you got a cold, he
would give a couple drops of kerosene on
a spoonful of sugar. That was one
[remedy]. And another one was cod liver
oil and castor oil. He kept those. Three
6's (666) was another one. Those were,
basically, about, just about all.
For swelling, there was a plant that
grew [wild]. It looked very much like
tobacco and they had a name for it, but
I don't recall exactly what the name
was. But what they would do, they would
take and boil it, and then they would
use the liquid from it to soak the part,
you know, if it was your ankle or knee
or an elbow, they would saturate it with
the cloth, and this was supposed to help
reduce the swelling, which it did. I
mean people of different eras had
different remedies for various different
types of things.
And then, there was another one. It was
a root. We used to call it a Sassafras
or something like that. We [would] pick
that root and wash it off and scrape it.
Use the bark off it. Boil that bark and
make tea out of it.
I remember when my teeth were
loose, my first teeth were
loose, they put a string on them
and pull them out!
But I do remember when they used
to have earaches, they used what
you call sweet oil. You warm it
up. My mother put it in the
spoon. Warm it up over the heat
and put it in the ear for an
earache. Used to have awful
colds during those days, and
sugar and kerosene was for colds
and now and then, you might get
a spoonful of what was called,
"Three 6's." [laughter] Cough
remember one [remedy] that I hated real
bad! [laughter] Like, if you got a cold,
they would use sugar and kerosene. They
put drops of the kerosene on the sugar.
I remember that.
I stepped on a nail. Bad, bad, bad, bad.
But now, you have to have a tetanus
shot. You didn't get them back then.
And, my mother took, after washing it
off and, what is that stuff that they
used? Quinine? Soaked it in hot water
and quinine. She went out in the field
and she found green plants, little shiny
green plant--I'll always remember, and
they took that little shiny green plant,
put it on there to soak out the poison.
So, they put that on the [wound] and
then they took a sawed-back, fatback
from a hog, cut that off, put that on it
and wrapped it up in it. And, they did
that every day until it drew the
soreness. I'll always remember that
because I hopped around with my foot
like this, you know.
I backed up on a plank that had a nail
in it. And, they did that. And then,
just kept bathing it and bathing it. Two
and three times a day, changing the
leaves, and the leaf was real green.
When you finished, the water would be
green, you know.
Oh yeah, and I remember I had a
toothache, and they would take this sap
called muserow, mustard roll, and they
would burn anybody to death. Right now,
they tell you, "Do not put it in your
mouth." We used to do anything to take
the pain of a toothache away. And then,
as people come to the county from
different areas and started learning
remedies and pass them on to the county
people, you know. When they started
building the Base, we had a lot of
people from the Carolinas. And if you
had something wrong with you, they would
tell you to try their remedies that they
used in the South. So, we did that.
Oh, I'll a tell you another--Was really,
really great was Epsom salts. That was
for [laughter] constipation. [And] For
soreness. People that used to say they
had arthritis would soak in it, bathe in
it. Epsom salts was a big thing, but it
was just: They did not care how things
taste. Whatever they thought would cure
Well, it almost kill you! But, that
kerosene was the worst right to this
day. I remember. [I] tell my children
Although St. Mary's County is only 60
miles south of Washington D. C. it has
been a forgotten isolated peninsula for
most of its 400 years of history since
the first European settlers arrived.
Countians have dealt with their
isolation in traditional as well as
innovative ways. During the timeframe
discussed in our oral histories (1865 -
present), local African Americans not
only had to surmount the challenges of
rural poverty and the effects of Jim
Crow, but also had to overcome the
difficulties arising from a lack of
infrastructure that is typical of
Maryland's tidewater counties.
the stories of African Americans in
Southern Maryland, we can learn about
the important contributions people have
made to build this vibrant community.
With this knowledge and understanding of
the subculture, we then can better
locate ourselves in the present and plan
for our futures.