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Hoodoo Herbalism Traditions and History: From Coal Mines To Blue Grass!

To keep a person from hoodooing you, wear red pepper in the heel of your shoe!

Herbalism is a central part of Hoodoo, an African American spiritual tradition that was created by enslaved people during the transatlantic slave trade. Hoodoo practitioners use herbs and roots to develop a special understanding of each element of their practice, and they believe that herbs and roots are alive and need to be tended to throughout the day. Hoodoo is used for a variety of everyday concerns, including holistic health and wellness, finding love, and keeping a home clean.

Appalachian folk magic, a traditional folkway has also been dubbed as dubbed "Hillbilly" or “hillfolks’ hoodoo.” Hoodoo Conjure Culture serves as an example of the ability of retaining spiritual beliefs and practices in a land separate from the one in which Africans originated, and also the absorption of the practices by Europeans who lived in close proximity to the newly freed Africans of the America's.

The Works Progress Administration’s Slave Narratives, collected between 1936 and 1938, contain more than 2,300 primary source accounts, including photographs and interviews with formerly enslaved people from fifteen states. Sifting through the records and filtering for any mention of ginseng, I discovered that, particularly in Western Appalachia, ginseng roots were a means by which enslaved or formerly enslaved people earned extra income. They would “dig seng” and sell the roots at local market centers. They also used ginseng for its medicinal properties. For instance, they treated fevers by wrapping the afflicted person in ginseng leaves to help alleviate pain.

One of the strongest connections between ginseng, herbal medicines, and Mountain hill folk culture and Black Americans is Hoodoo, which combines preexisting African religions and spiritual practices with Southern African American culture. Hoodoo was created out of necessity by enslaved African people during the Transatlantic Slave Trade period. There are documented accounts of enslaved people using Hoodoo to rebel against their captors in the eighteenth century. During a 1712 uprising in New York, a freeman and Hoodoo practitioner by the name of Peter Doctor aided enslaved people in burning down the township. He concocted a “magical powder” and applied it to the clothing of his comrades to protect them.

From the mid-1700s, enslaved workers in the coal pits of Richmond, Virginia, were among the first to work in America's commercial coal mines. Thrown into harsh labor conditions and exploitation, these miners still managed to acquire skills and knowledge that would eventually give rise to a Black-led mining culture. During those mercurial times, Black miners increasingly organized themselves into unions to push for better working conditions and wages. One of the most notable events in the history of Black miners and unionization is the Miners’ March of 1921 in West Virginia where African American miners led a significant portion of the striking workforce. The Miners' March culminated in the dramatic Battle of Blair Mountain, where Black and white miners united under the banner of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) to face off against a force composed of law enforcement officers and hired agents. At that time, the UMWA was considered one of the leading labor organizations for interracial membership.

There were at least 16 confirmed deaths in the battle, though no one knows exactly how many were killed before the US Army marched in to put a stop to the fighting. For five days from late August to early September 1921, some 10,000 armed coal miners confronted 3,000 lawmen and strikebreakers (called the Logan Defenders) who were backed by coal mine operators during the miners' attempt to unionize the southwestern West Virginia coalfields. It is most certain the miners injured were treated by practitioners of Hoodoo. The unique spirituality that developed in Appalachia, which combined traditional African and Christian concepts with Herbalism (Roots magic),folk magic, and in turn mixed spells, superstitions, omens, and conjure with a deep reverence for the natural world.

Unfortunately, with the rise of Jim Crow segregation laws, Black miners faced increasing discrimination throughout the early 20th century and many eventually lost their jobs or were forced out of unions altogether.

One of the largest coal companies operating in the Richmond Basin (Virginia) in the late 1830s was the Midlothian Mining Co., which used around 150 enslaved black workers. After emancipation, industrializing central Appalachia saw Black miners come closer to finding economic equality than in any other coalfield, though the work was dangerous and difficult. This potential economic equality sparked a large influx of African Americans into the area. By 1920, about 88,706 African Americans resided in central Appalachia and over 26% of all mine workers in the area were Black.

Between 1800 and 1865, Black people constituted between 15% and 20% of the population in Appalachia. In the non-Appalachian sections, Black persons made up over one third of the population. By 1920, about 88,706 African Americans resided in central Appalachia and over 26% of all mine workers in the area were Black. During those mercurial times, Black miners increasingly organized themselves into unions to push for better working conditions and wages.

Today, Hoodoo is carried forward through the active practices of African an Appalachian cultured American people throughout the United States. Using various herbs and roots, Hoodoo practitioners formulate special understandings of each element in their practice. According to author and Hoodoo practitioner Stephanie Rose Bird, “In Hoodoo, there is a feeling that herbs and roots are alive and need tending throughout the day.”

Varying shades of blue are used in Hoodoo culture to ward off evil spirits and “haints.” Historically, the pigment wss important in African tradition and was made by crushing indigo once used as money in many parts of the country. Since the blue color mimics the sky and water, it’s thought to trick ghosts and evil spirits into passing by or stopping them altogether. The bottle tree tradition also utilized blue glass bottles for the purpose of capturing vengeful spirits.

The banjo, an instrument which is inextricably linked to the bluegrass sound, is African in origin. Bluegrass singing was influenced by the blues, black field hollers, and African-American Psalm singing. African music has influenced many musical genres, including bluegrass, which developed from Appalachian folk music in the South. Enslaved Africans brought many of their traditions to the Appalachian region, including instruments and styles of playing. Enslaved Africans popularized a distinctive style of banjo picking called "clawhammer" on plantations, which established the unique Southern Appalachian banjo sound. The banjo is also polyrhythmic, which is a characteristic of bluegrass music. The fiddle, also known as the bowed lute, was brought to the Americas by captured Africans, whose style of fiddling reflects centuries-old West African techniques.

Delta blues aka Hoodoo music is the language of the blues in the south. Its the magic of African derived religions as practiced in the United States. The term is related to the West African term “juju”. This culture was brought to the here by enslaved African peoples.Delta blues was a key influence in the development of bluegrass music, which also incorporated elements of gospel music. Delta blues, also known as Mississippi blues, originated in the Mississippi Delta region in the late 1920s and 1930s. It's characterized by its raw emotion, soulful vocals, and distinctive guitar fingerpicking style. Slide guitar is a hallmark of the style, which often features solo performances with singers accompanying themselves on guitar. Delta blues artists like Robert Johnson and Charley Patton used a variety of techniques, such as sliding a bottleneck or metal object along the fingerboard to bend notes.

This music was often referred to as country, hillbilly, or mountain music. Its development included the blending of elements from gospel music and the blues music that was prominent among people of African origin who lived in the Mississippi Delta region. Not only did Mississippi black culture inform mountain music the segregationist leaders of the state wanted to be a literal part of the Appalachian mountains! In 1966, a retired high school principal named George Thompson Pound created a fake map for political elites, segregationists like US senators James O. Eastland and John C. Stennis, hoped the federal government would include northeast Mississippi in its new Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), a Great Society program that eventually distributed hundreds of millions of dollars to local governments.

"This movement to invent what segregationists called “Appalachian Mississippi” countered the War on Poverty’s economic empowerment of rural Black communities. Since 1964, the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) had poured federal funding directly into Mississippi’s Black freedom struggle through institutions for public housing, cooperative agriculture, and childcare, such as Project Head Start. This angered segregationist it wasn't enough to be separate they wanted Blacks to be kept impoverished. The ARC model bypassed the OEO’s mandate for the “maximum feasible participation” of local beneficiaries in the use of poverty funds. Ruling whites had resisted the War on Poverty’s direct redistribution from the beginning, but their reimagining of southern Appalachia was a watershed. The ARC promised continued white control of federal monies which they could keep from black communities and funnel to improve white communities and further undermined the OEO’s funding of Black communities. It imagined, in short, a path around democracy that maintained the system of inequities." (Justin Randolph Southern

There was just one problem: Mississippi lacked mountains .Meanwhile, Mississippi’s singers provided a soundtrack for the state’s transition to Appalachia. The efforts of white Mississippi’s ruling class accompanied a peculiar shift in popular culture, much of which radiated distinctly from white artists with roots in North Mississippi. To distant audiences, Mississippi’s sonic imagination was upturned after Jim Crow. Music executives had “segregated sound” for decades, cordoning off racialized blues music and hillbilly music through the inventions of genre and marketing.


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