Black herbalists were the tonic the Valley needed

Anne Chesky Smith Special to Black Mountain News

(Editor’s note: This is the second part of Anne Chesky Smith’s story about two African-American midwives treated black and white residents of the Swannanoa Valley. The first part ran in the Feb. 22 Black Mountain News.)

Inez Daugherty, a Black Mountain resident and civic leader who passed away in 2007 at age 95, remembered only two midwives who served Black Mountain – her aunt, Annie Daugherty and Mary Hayden.

Born in the High Top Colony community of Black Mountain in 1888, Daugherty delivered many of the babies born in Black Mountain, Katherine Daugherty Debrow told a local filmmaker in 2001. Hayden may have delivered the rest.

“If there were any whites, I don’t know about them,” Daugherty told an interviewer for an oral history archived at the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center.

Though there were a multitude of white doctors across the Valley, Mary Hayden and Annie Daugherty treated white patients as well as black ones. “It didn’t matter whether the family was black, white, willing to pay or even if they had not paid for the previous delivery, Granny would gather her supplies and ‘light out,’" Mary O. Burnette, a Black Mountain resident who is Hayden’s granddaughter, said two weeks ago. "She knew they didn’t have money.”

Daugherty and Hayden made house calls, regardless of the time of day or weather, for folks who couldn’t afford a doctor or didn’t have the time to make it to one.

The Rev. Eugene Byrd, a white Black Mountain teacher, coach and Baptist minister who passed away in 2015 at 99, talked about his birth to an interviewer in an oral history stored at the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center. “I was delivered by Aunt Mary Hayden, who of course was a person who did that sort of thing, ‘cause the doctor was a little bit slow a-getting there.” The Byrd family land was adjacent to the Garland Burnette family land near Allen Mountain.

“Fortunately, Granny (Mary Hayden), well into her 80s, was present when my sister delivered her second child," Burnette said. "She looked at the child after the doctor had left, and the child had no features. Granny was familiar with the caul and slipped her thumb under the veil and pulled it off.

"(She) was still ‘catching babies’ long after her great-grands came along. And expectant mothers would send for her after the law required a medical doctor to be in attendance for the birth.”

In the 1920s, state governments began to require midwives, who had traditionally been trained informally by a relative, to get permission slips from doctors to practice. The state required midwives have their homes inspected for cleanliness and have their moral character assessed. These new regulations disproportionately affected African-American and low-income families.

So, Hayden approached the county to receive sterile supplies for her work. She may have been the first African-American woman to be registered with the Buncombe County Health Department as a midwife. For a while she lived in a small, three-room house off Cragmont Road owned by the Nix family.

“Granny would deliver their babies,” Mary Burnette said, “so they let her live there until one of their children needed the house ... At that house was the only time I ever remember her having a doctor. She treated herself.”

Historically, because enslaved people in North Carolina often had little choice about many facets of their lives, they tried to maintain their own medical traditions. Often concealing illnesses from slaveholders, they sought treatment from other slaves – or treated themselves – using herbs cultivated in their gardens, plants gathered in the wild, and the knowledge of their family and friends. Many remedies were also necessary to treat injuries obtained during work, including whipping wounds.

Still, by the early 1900s, “healthcare (for African Americans in the Valley) was available only through healers and midwives,” said Inez Daugherty. “We could not go to Mission or St. Joseph's” hospitals in Asheville.

In 1927, French Broad Hospital was established in Asheville for black people, Daugherty noted. But it was 15 miles away in Asheville, and few people in the community had cars. Transportation was not the only problem. “We had no money for doctor and hospital bills,” Burnette said. And information about, and money for, insurance was limited.

Years later, in the 1940s, another hospital opened in Asheville to serve black patients. Though transportation options into Asheville and earnings had improved over the last two decades, the service at that facility was poor and the hospital soon closed, according to Burnette.

Because of the midwives' extensive knowledge of herbal and home remedies, people through the early and mid-20th century relied on Hayden and Daugherty not only for delivering babies but also for treating a variety of ailments.

“My first cousin, she had a baby. And it had jaundice,” Inez Daugherty said. "And Aunt Mary Hayden went down to see, and she told her what to get and what to do, and it cured Daniel.”

The government, in addition to regulating midwifery in the 1920s (and fully outlawing lay-midwifery in the 1970s), also began to ban the use of herbs and poultices, greatly curtailing treatments for patients unable to afford hospital care.

“(Mary Hayden) could cure just about anything with herbs,” descendant Pearl Lynch said in a Black Mountain News story published in 2015. “She knew so much about them, and when she died (on Jan. 6, 1956), all that knowledge was lost.”

Mary Burnette is sure that some of the herbal remedies she remembers were passed down from Mary Hayden, and perhaps came from even further back. “There was Jerusalem Oak," Burnette said, "and you could find it in our fields. A lot of kids had worms back then, and you’d make it into tea with sugar and it would kill worms.”

Jerusalem Oak, also known as wormseed, was harvested commercially through the mid-20th century for use in medicines to treat hookworms in both humans and animals. Though lower cost alternatives have been found, it is still used for fragrance in lotions, perfumes, and soaps.

“But the most common tea was ground ivy, a little vine with a fan-shaped, scalloped leaf and a little purple flower," Burnette said. "Make that into a tea and you can drink that to help you sleep at night.” Besides use as a sleep aid, ground ivy has also been shown to be useful in treating coughs, bronchitis, arthritis, stomach problems, kidney stones and mild lung problems. It is also currently being studied for use in preventing leukemia, hepatitis, cancer and HIV.

Today, there is no licensing or certification for herbalists in North Carolina – or in any state - meaning that anyone can use, dispense, or recommend herbs. However, without an doctor's degree, herbalists are not allowed to diagnose disease nor tell people that their treatments will prevent, treat, or cure illness. Still, many of these remedies passed down from generation to generation are in use today.

“My sister, who used to follow Granny around through the fields and knew a lot more than I did," Burnette said, "she said Granny told her that every herb has three kinds – one is a healer, one is a just a weed, and the other is a poison. I thought that was marvelous. A positive, a neutral, and a negative.”

Anne Chesky Smith is director of Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center.