For the second week of our Unsung Black Herbalist series, we’d like to spotlight a remarkable woman, midwife, and herbalist: Mary Stepp Burnette Hayden. You may not find Mary’s name in any commonly known herbal text, however those who knew her and experienced her brilliant healing methods passed along her story and legacy for future generations to learn. The excerpt below is taken from our book: “The Divine Fiat: Black Excellence in Herbalism”.
Mary Stepp Burnette Hayden (1858-1956)
If there was one thing that Mary Stepp Burnette Hayden (also known as “Granny Hayden”) was famous for, it was her herbal and medicinal acumen. Mary was born in January 1858 into bondage on the Joe Stepp plantation in Black Mountain, North Carolina. She was the daughter of Hanah Stepp who was part Native American and had served as a midwife on a plantation in Alabama since the age of 13.
Those who knew Mary said that she could cure just about any illness with herbs. She was a prolific herbalist and midwife, who served both the black and white communities of Black Mountain for decades. Mary worked closely with Annie Daugherty (who is covered later in this chapter) and became a local legend whose stories are told to this day.
Mary was known to make house calls in the rain, sleet, or snow. If patients did not have the money to pay for a doctor, they knew they could turn to Mary for help. Mary’s granddaughter, Mary O. Burnette, recalled:
“It did not 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.” 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.”
Mary practiced medicine throughout her entire life. Her granddaughter described how sharp Mary’s medical skills were:
“Fortunately, Granny, 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.”
Despite strict midwife laws implemented by the North Carolina government during the 1920s, which were designed to disenfranchise African American midwives who had not acquired formal medical training, Mary became the first African American woman to become registered with Buncombe County as a midwife. The state government continued to tighten restrictions on herbalists and healers by banning the use of poultices and herbs, making medical care unaffordable for many.
Despite those strict laws and regulations, patients insisted on being seen by Mary. Although healthcare was widely available to African Americans, they still depended heavily on local healers and midwives such as Mary Hayden and Annie Daugherty. Because of Mary’s and Annie’s extensive knowledge of herbal and home remedies, people through the early and mid-twentieth century relied on them to deliver babies and treat a myriad of ailments.
(Excerpted from Chapter 2)
To read more about Mary’s amazing herbal knowledge and the herbal know-how of other brilliant unsung Black herbalists, get your copy of “The Divine Fiat: Black Excellence in Herbalism.”
Mary's story, what she gave of herself to bring new life into the world and to heal the ailing, is commendable. Let’s continue to uplift and share her legacy within our communities, inspiring the next generation of Black healers and herbalists.
*Image above is Mary Stepp Burnette Hayden and her family in 1919.