... REMINISCING ABOUT THE AFRICAN
"In November 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]
When we 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.
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.
And you 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
"Making 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 - )
[Mother] 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.
But, I 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.
How could 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.
We had 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 the doctor.
Given the 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
Clarence C. Smith
Every now 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
Spider 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
went [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.
We never 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 was.
James Alexander Forrest (1911
- 2009) (audio
only - 2 minutes, 4 seconds)
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.
And my 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.
My 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
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.
Elvare Smith Gaskin (1919 -
1998) (audio only - 3
minutes, 12 seconds)
I don't 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.
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
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 or pneumonia.
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
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
The only time we
would go to a doctor is when we were
sick, and it seemed like we weren't
Everlyn Louise Swales Holland
(1932 - ) (1 minute, 57
. . .
providing health care, there
wasn't really a lot you did. A
lot of remedies, a lot of things
that my grandmother used to do.
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 take.
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.
The kind 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 food.
Well, my 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
when my teeth were loose, my
first teeth were loose, they put
a string on them and pull them
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 you.
Well, it almost kill
you! But, that kerosene was the worst
right to this day. I remember. [I] tell
my children about it.
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.
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.